DULUTH — Duluth's City Council rejected an emergency mask mandate Monday night, but a measure asking Mayor Emily Larson to use her executive powers to "safeguard the community" during the pandemic was approved.
An ordinance proposed by Councilor Terese Tomanek, a retired Essentia Health chaplain, failed to earn the unanimous votes required to enact a mask mandate that would have been effective 48 hours from approval and last until March 1 for those 5 and older. Councilors Roz Randorf and Derek Medved voted against it, instead proposing a resolution that essentially supports Larson in using the powers she already has to issue public health mandates.
The council is a "slow-moving" deliberative body that isn't built to handle a fluid public health crisis like a pandemic, Randorf said.
"This affirms that [Larson's] powers exist," she said. "She has the staff, resources, to do what she feels is fit to be able to manage this day-to-day unfolding crisis ... We will put our faith in her."
But the council approved a mask mandate in 2020, Tomanek said, noting Larson hasn't said whether she'd enact one and it shouldn't matter which leadership body approves it.
"What matters is that it's in effect," she said, as coronavirus infections rise, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Minnesota saw an uptick in coronavirus cases last week, although hospitalizations requiring intensive care declined. St. Louis County Public Health Director Amy Westbrook told the council that the current rate of community transmission for the Duluth area is 557 cases per 100,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health recommend universal masking in all public places when case rates are at or above 50 cases per 100,000 as a seven-day average.
Along with the nearly 200 e-mails sent to councilors over the issue, Essentia Health and St. Luke's hospital leaders weighed in, encouraging residents to speak to city leaders.
"Doctors and nurses who have been on the front lines of this pandemic for almost two years are exhausted, and they need your help," said Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health's East Market. "Nobody wants to see small businesses close or schools revert to distance learning, and the simple act of wearing a face covering in public is one way for us to avoid those outcomes."
Opposition and support of the mandate was about evenly split in e-mails to councilors, which came from small business owners, teachers, medical professionals, people with young children and those who were immunocompromised. Both sides said a mask mandate affects which businesses they patronize. Those in support say they've been mostly staying home, while those against say they will shop in nearby cities if another mandate is approved. Some worried about the health of family members and the ability to receive timely hospital care while others touted personal choice, dismissing the virus and effectiveness of masks.
Council Vice President Janet Kennedy said that the city has returned to responding to the pandemic, rather than recovering. If Duluthians don't do their part to mitigate the crisis, she said, she'll go through the longer council process to propose an ordinance that would only require a simple majority to pass.
President Arik Forsman, noting the city was on the precipice of more pandemic hardship, urged residents to "do what you need to to protect your family and neighbors."
Larson was not available for comment, and her office issued a statement saying, "We will continue to evaluate available data and make a decision based on the best information available as it relates to public health and pandemic response."