ST. PAUL — Saying it was "a small sacrifice for a potential big gain," and adding that, "we don't want to slide backwards," Gov. Tim Walz announced on Wednesday, July 22, a statewide mask mandate during an afternoon press conference.
"Minnesotans must wear a mask indoors (in public places)," Walz said of Executive Order 20-81. The order has no expiration date, begins Friday at 11:59 p.m., and violation is a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to a $100 ticket.
"This is the way," Walz said, "the cheapest, most effective way for us to open up our business, for us to get our kids back in school, for us to keep our grandparents healthy, and for us to get back that life that we all miss so much. "
With the order, Minnesota joined Indiana and Ohio on Wednesday in becoming the 29th, 30th and 31st states to require masks while indoors within public places.
The announcement, widely expected for days, follows weeks of rising business- and municipality-level mask orders that had begun to strain the public's ability to follow where masks were required and where they were merely optional. Most major retailers and 13 cities had already put indoor mask mandates in place. Statewide, according to a recent New York Times analysis, mask-wearing is currently low in Minnesota.
The announcement Wednesday touched on the practical and the political of masking, its rationale in science and effect on family life. The practical side of the order, Walz and others said, would just have to come down to making new habits.
"If you're out walking your dog outside, you don't need to wear a mask if you're not around people," Walz said. "If you're talking to your neighbor across the fence while you're both mowing the yard, you can do that without a mask too...But if you're driving your car and you stop to go in and pay for gas and get a soda, you just slip it on."
"It's just going to become a habit where you grab a mask when you head out the door," said Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove.
As for enforcement in the face of non-compliant customers — who could simply tell businesses under the order that they have a health reason for not masking and not be questioned — Grove advised companies to "treat that customer the same way you'd treat any challenging customer situation. We don't want businesses enforcing as if they are mask police, causing altercations."
"Nobody wants to become that person who accidentally ends up being famous on the Internet for throwing a tantrum in Trader Joe's," said Walz.
The state plans to distribute 4 million disposable masks to Chambers of Commerce in all 87 counties.
The political side of the question came up as well on Wednesday. Walz had encouraged the legislature to order the mandate, but it adjourned from a special session early Tuesday morning without doing so. Calling it a "one-size-fits-all" approach, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa released a statement before the announcement.
Saying "the mandate feels like a heavy-handed, broad approach that won’t work well for every situation," Gazelka said that "86% of the state is either in a very safe environment or already taking appropriate measures to mitigate the spread of COVID," and that "deaths and ICU use have stabilized to very low numbers without a statewide mask mandate."
"These are the same people who told me that I need to make decisions more like the governor of Texas and Florida," replied Walz, when told of Gazelka's comments, the remarks a reference to outbreaks in those states. "These are people that told me two months ago there was no COVID-19 in greater Minnesota, when Stearns and Nobles county developed the highest rate of infection in the nation."
"It's true in Minnesota there are places with not much COVID," said Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota at the press conference. "But the science is clear that 40% of people with COVID do not have symptoms, so you will not know that COVID is in your community until other sick people start showing up, and by then, it's been transmitting for several weeks."
Health officials said the mandate does not change other recommendations to social distance.
"A mask is not magic," said state Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm. "It doesn't mean you can go out when you're sick, or gather in large numbers in close proximity."
"I have a squirmy seven year-old," said Lt. Gov Peggy Flanagan. "So I absolutely understand the challenges of asking a little one to wear a mask." Both Flanagan and Walz added however that parents should try to make mask-wearing fun for children now in order to begin training them for any reopening of schools that would likely include masks.
"My goal is to get kids back in the classroom," said Walz, "and I do believe masking plays a role in making that happen."
Walz did not speculate on a data objective that would rescind the order, and agreed with the possibility that mandated masking could go on for several months nationally. The cultural opposition to masking, he said, has been the biggest obstacle.
"We got ourselves into this weird place where masks are proxy for a political ideology, rather than a scientific approach," he said. "It just got ginned up as being whether you're wearing a flag lapel pin or not, and it never needed to be that."
The state reported another 507 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, as well as four deaths from the illness. The deaths struck residents of Ramsey, Blue Earth, Hennepin, and Mille Lacs counties.
The Mille Lacs fatality was recorded as a person in their 20s. Three of the four deaths were among residents of long-term care.
There have now been 1,552 deaths from the illness in the state.
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.