The Minnesota Grocers Association’s view is as spot on now as it was in March when it first said that, “in light of the current public health emergency and the incredible stress and strain on grocery-store workers,” now is no time for a new 5-cent fee on plastic shopping bags in Duluth.
Of course, when is a good time for another burden on Duluth businesses and a fresh inconvenience, annoyance, and expense for shoppers, as a News Tribune editorial also first asked in March?
Duluth's much-ballyhooed and still-controversial bag fee had been set to go into effect on April Fools Day. Councilors correctly put it off, however, in recognition of the struggles the community and Duluthians were having with COVID-19.
The new date for implementation is now New Year’s Day, but expect the City Council to delay implementation again as we continue to grapple with a pandemic that has killed more than 4,000 Minnesotans, has sickened more than 10,000 in St. Louis County alone, and that presently is the nation's leading cause of death. Yes, there are more important matters to be dealt with right now.
So Council President Gary Anderson has sponsored an amended ordinance to delay the fee until 90 days after emergency COVID-19 pandemic declarations by the city and/or state expire, as the News Tribune reported late last week. The amended ordinance is to be introduced at today’s council meeting and could be passed as soon as a week from today.
"The pandemic is seemingly at a turning point now with the vaccine starting to come out,” Anderson said in the News Tribune. “But there are still families in need, and we don't know when unemployment may or may not end."
He doesn’t want to add to existing burdens, Anderson added.
And the bag fee certainly promises to be an additional burden, even if its goal is simple and well-intentioned: Charge for plastic bags to discourage their use and to keep them out of the waste stream.
However, with so many plastic products contributing to the plastics-pollution problem, can a fee on just shopping bags really make much of a difference? And has the neverending effort to implement this fee in Duluth been worth the divisiveness and neighbors-vs.-neighbors hard feelings it has created?
Duluthians can be encouraged to reduce their use of plastics without being nicked every time they pick up a gallon of milk.
While a nickel a bag may not seem like much, it’s a new fee (a new tax really) that will add up quite quickly for some, particularly those already counting every penny to also cover rent, medical bills, and other basic necessities.
"Poor people take the brunt," Councilor Renee Van Nett said at a council agenda session in March. To the council's credit, its bag fee won't apply to anyone enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or who receives Women Infants and Children benefits.
But stores will take the brunt, too. Logistically, how do they charge for bags before they're packed? How does a checker estimate how many will be needed? And how many Duluth businesses will lose business as shoppers looking to avoid the extra expense go elsewhere — to the Superior Menards rather than the Menards in West Duluth, for example?
Even if impacts are minimal, a fresh onslaught of claims of government overreach in Duluth only further reinforces our city's lingering and unfortunate reputation as a tough place to do business.
Such challenges aren’t going to go away when COVID-19 does. But the Duluth City Council's bag fee can — for good.