As this thing has evolved and as our health experts have learned more about COVID-19 and how it spreads — how it sickens, how it kills — a simple act that all of us can take has emerged as a no-brainer in protecting public health: Cloth face coverings over our mouths and noses when we’re away from home and around other people, especially in public indoor settings, can “dramatically slow the spread of COVID 19 and save thousands of lives,” as Dr. Jon Pryor of Essentia Health said this month.
Disappointingly, Duluth, Superior, the state of Minnesota, and other places in our corner of the world have been slow to embrace what clearly needs to be required to help defeat a deadly pandemic. The evidence is sound. The health experts’ guidance is clear.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth face coverings in public for all Americans over age 2. A growing number of cities — including across Minnesota in Mankato, Winona, Rochester, and elsewhere — and at least 23 states already have heeded that recommendation by mandating masks. And for good reason: COVID-19 cases are on the rise at mid-summer in more than 40 states. The coverings effectively stop respiratory droplets from being passed by someone infected — and who may not even know it or have symptoms — to someone nearby.
The Twin Ports and state of Minnesota, starting Monday, can join the wave of wisely making masks mandatory in public spaces. The Duluth City Council is scheduled to consider an emergency ordinance Monday to immediately begin requiring face coverings in public indoor places. Superior Mayor Jim Paine said in the Superior Telegram today that his city “would likely follow” with a mandate similar to one passed this month in Rochester. And pressure on Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz for a statewide mask mandate is mounting, including a written plea from St. Louis County Commissioner Patrick Boyle Wednesday, during what has turned out to be a record-high week for new cases in St. Louis County. Walz, encouragingly, has said that statewide action is “on the table.”
“It’s kind of funny, isn’t it, how something so rudimentary could be so undeniably important,” Dr. Pryor, president of Essentia's east market, said in a press conference held virtually in Duluth this month. “By wearing a mask, you are not making a political statement. You are making a statement that says, ‘I care about others.’ Because that’s really what masks do; they protect the people around you. And if we all do our part by wearing masks, by practicing social distancing whenever possible, (and) by washing our hands, we can drastically lessen the threat of COVID-19. …
“Masks make a difference,” Pryor said. “The evidence is irrefutable.”
Consider just a couple of pieces of that evidence. Health Affairs reported on June 16 that the COVID-19 growth rate in the U.S. slowed following mask mandates in 15 states and in the District of Columbia. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University examined 198 countries and reported June 15 that those with "cultural norms or government policies favoring mask-wearing had lower death rates." And Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman said in a June 13 Washington Post report that countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, that had high rates of face-mask use early in the pandemic, "have had better success squashing the virus and keeping their economies going."
In addition, a University of Washington study determined 95% mask compliance could result in a 50% decline in transmissions, and a scientific journal study said face coverings could “eradicate” the coronavirus, Dr. Pryor reported.
“If you don’t give the virus a way to transmit itself to another human being, it will die,” Pryor proffered.
“The cost here is low and the benefit is huge for everyone to wear a mask,” added St. Luke's infectious-disease physician Dr. Andrew Thompson. “We want to stay open. Businesses want to stay open.” Mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social-distancing have been identified as keys to protecting health and unshackling the economy.
Arguments against face coverings, that requiring them is an infringement on freedoms, echo arguments heard several years ago when smoking in public places was being debated and was then prohibited. The goal then was stopping cancer-causing nicotine from being spread via secondhand smoke. The goal now is stopping COVID-19-causing germs from being spread in respiratory droplets. The difference is that mask mandates will end when this health emergency ends.
Encouragingly, there seems to be support in Duluth for the emergency ordinance the City Council is scheduled to take up Monday. The Greater Downtown Council surveyed its business membership and found 73% in favor. A Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce survey of more than 5,000 business members and residents found 67% in support among business leaders and 66% in support community-wide. Both results were released Friday.
Minnesota is in an unusual place here. The Gopher State long has been a national leader in public health. But not this time. Even if we’re playing catch-up, however, city leaders in Duluth and Superior and state leaders in St. Paul owe it to all of us and our continued health to require, as soon as Monday, that cloth face coverings be worn in indoor places where the public gathers.
It’s not political; it’s practical. And it shouldn’t be seen as a burden, but as an act of kindness toward others.