A rancorous and divisive drama is playing out in Ramsey, where a recent City Council vote to stop enforcing the statewide mask mandate is pitting residents and businesses against each other and has the mayor worried about the city getting sued.
Scores of residents — many not wearing masks — jammed City Hall on Tuesday night to praise the four council members who on March 9 voted to stop using city resources to enforce Gov. Tim Walz's executive order. Three council members voted against the measure.
"You did what the people wanted you to do," said Dan Denno, the mayor of Oak Grove, whose Anoka County city passed a similar resolution last spring. "I commend all of you who decided to pass this ordinance and stand up for the people of your city."
Others pleaded with the council to rescind the legislation, saying it has brought chaos and confusion about whether masks are still required in public.
"Ambiguity, division, discord — that is what this has created," said Michelle Anderson, director of operations and administration at Lord of Life Lutheran Church. "This is not the forum [where] you make decisions about liberty. Focus on roads, potholes, trails. Do what you are called to do to further the mission of Ramsey."
Mayor Mark Kuzma asked for civility as he opened the first opportunity for the public to speak since the resolution — grounded on the premise that a mask mandate infringes on individuals' constitutional rights — passed.
But decorum disintegrated quickly as the night's second speaker, Vinicius Taguchi, president of the Twin Cities chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, spoke. Appearing online, Taguchi was only a few lines into his remarks when a man in the audience jumped to the podium, interrupted him, and questioned whether he had a right to speak because he didn't live in the city.
Taguchi rebuked Council Member Chelsee Howell, who previously compared the mask requirement to the experiences of Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II.
"Asian Americans are often used as political pawns," he said.
In response, Howell said, "Historically, when we have been pressured by those in government to look the other way and not question their actions, innocents have suffered consequences. I will go on standing against those who use the power of government to abuse the rights of all citizens in fulfillment of my oath to uphold the Constitution. We have to agree to disagree."
Throughout the 90 minutes of public comment, cheers erupted each time supporters who called the mask mandate a form of "tyranny" and "an unconstitutional government overreach" finished their speeches.
"It's time to get back to normal," said resident Joe Field. "Not the new normal, but the old normal that would make Patrick Henry proud."
Things have hardly been normal since the council passed the resolution, which states that no city resources "physical, financial or otherwise" shall be used to enforce Walz's emergency executive orders.
"I am disappointed the council is not willing to reverse this decision," Kuzma said Tuesday. "It's tough when we have laws and the council doesn't follow them. This has put the city in difficult position. There is potential for legal action."
Earlier this month, the state Attorney General's Office warned the northwest metro suburb that state executive orders trump measures passed by lower units of government. The office has not taken any action, but some fear that might happen.
Resident Bill Erhart asked the council members who voted for the measure if they are willing to make a contribution to pay legal fees if Ramsey is sued and loses.
Perhaps nobody feels the pressure more than Vicki Wredberg, manager at the local Coborn's grocery store. She said her employees were suddenly thrust into the center of the fray since the measure passed, with customers becoming belligerent when asked to wear masks.
Wredberg said her staff has had to play referee when arguments have broken out.
Staff "should not be put in harm's way because of council's actions and miscommunication," she said, asking the council to reverse the ordinance or "plainly convey to the community that the executive order is still law and businesses must follow the order."
Ryan Heineman, one of the council members who brought the measure forward, made no apology for the measure and said "preservation of the Constitution is not a personal passion, it is a responsibility."
Calvin Kubat, who works in Ramsey's finance department, said he wondered how things got so political and polarizing.
With miscommunication and confusion, "we have wasted far more [staff] resources than we saved by passing it," he said. "We have had more than 500,000 people die, and it's hard to understand making masks political. It's reckless and irresponsible."
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768