DULUTH — Masks may soon be mandated in Duluth's indoor public places if the City Council approves a proposed requirement at its July 13 meeting.

"We are doing this because we want to keep our community healthy and our businesses open," Council Member Arik Forsman said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

Children under 10 and those who are medically unable to wear a mask would be exempt, and the mandate would not apply to schools. Otherwise, Forsman said, "This ordinance does have teeth and it will be enforced" including by warnings, fines and possible misdemeanor prosecution.

Four of the council's nine members have already signaled support for the measure. If approved it would be in effect as long as the city's state of emergency is in place.

"Requiring everyone to wear a mask in our city is a proactive, simple and effective way to keep everyone safe ane ensure the viability of our businesses," said Terese Tomanek, a recently appointed City Council member and chaplain at Essentia Health.

Mayor Emily Larson has asked Gov. Tim Walz to implement a statewide mask requirement.

A petition has been circulating demanding Duluth officials require masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 15 people in St. Louis County and infected at least 169 as of Wednesday. The majority of those who have tested positive in the county are between 20 and 29 years old, according to the county.

"It is becoming clear that not enough people are choosing to wear masks voluntarily," Duluth disability rights advocate Gaelynn Lea wrote to the City Council this week. "So even though the mayor and governor would prefer to use education rather than enforcement, it is simply not an effective technique."

Opponents have threatened to take their business elsewhere if the city institutes a mask requirement.

"The city is already in a financial crunch due to the COVID pandemic. Please do not exacerbate this by causing us to lose out on even more tax dollars, especially during tourist season when many potential visitors will choose to spend money elsewhere," resident Leslie Aho wrote in an e-mail to Council members.

Beginning today the University of Minnesota Duluth, like all U campuses, will require all students, employees and visitors to wear masks indoors.

"We now know that wearing a simple face covering provides valuable, albeit imperfect, protection against the spread of COVID-19, and it is a visual reminder that we must all take precautions to protect our own health and all of those around us," UMD Chancellor Lendley Black told the campus in an e-mail this week. "These precautions are important because individuals can carry COVID-19 with no apparent symptoms, and face coverings reduce the possibility that we might unknowingly infect others."

A University of Washington model predicts universal masking could save nearly 25,000 American lives over the next three months.

"Statistically speaking, it's a no-brainer," said Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health's east market. "Masks make a difference. They have been proven to protect us. By wearing a mask you are not making a political statement, you are making a statement that says 'I care about others.'"

Edina and Rochester recently adopted mask requirements, and Mankato is considering one as well. The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul signed executive orders in May requiring face coverings in businesses and city buildings.

Masks have become divisive as critics question their usefulness and impediments on personal liberties while businesses have increasingly borne the brunt of enforcing their own policies in lieu of local or state requirements.

Pryor said the effectiveness of masks was unknown at the beginning of the pandemic, but recent studies have provided "irrefutable" evidence masks slow the spread of the disease.

Dr. Andrew Thompson, an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke's, said masks should be used in addition to, not in place of, social distancing and vigilant hand-washing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don't live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain."

COVID-19 has killed more than 127,000 Americans and sickened at least 2.6 million.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496