The partisan divide was apparent on the face of every Minnesota lawmaker gathered for the private meeting at the State Capitol in June.
It was the closing hours of the last special session and the group of dealmakers remained at odds on the intricacies of police reform. But before negotiations even began, there was a stark contrast: Every Democrat entered the room with a face covering; but not one Republican wore a mask.
The face mask — a basic item health officials consider a simple precaution against the spread of COVID-19 — has become a symbol of political division across the state and the nation.
Now, as Gov. Tim Walz mulls a statewide mask mandate, state and local government leaders are weighing their response. A decision could come in a matter of days, as state lawmakers return to St. Paul for another special session to consider his emergency powers.
“It’s another symptom of the political polarization that we have. The moment Trump said he didn’t want to wear a mask it became a big deal,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, referring to President Donald Trump’s reluctance to wear a face covering. “A statewide mandate will probably encourage some people to wear a mask, but other people are going to ignore it,” added Garofalo, who has donned a mask at the Capitol.
On Saturday, the president publicly wore a mask for the first time during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
As COVID-19 cases have spiked elsewhere in the U.S., mask wearing has shot to a record high. A national Gallup poll from late June found 86% of adults reported using one in the previous week. That’s up from 51% in April.
If Walz does opt for a mandate, Minnesota would join Democratic and Republican governors of more than 20 other states that have required masks in public. In Minnesota, a number of cities from Minneapolis to Winona have already enacted local requirements.
But there is resistance to a statewide mandate.
Lake of the Woods County Commissioner Cody Hasbargen said he doesn’t want to see a one-size-fits-all mandate for masks. His county is the only one in the state where there has yet to be a confirmed case of COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon.
“Greater Minnesota is different than the cities, and it would be nice to have the ability to adapt something like that,” he said. It’s unclear how Walz would apply or enforce a mandate, and Hasbargen said enforcement would be challenging in spread-out communities like his.
Mask use in the State Capitol has tended to follow party lines, though people’s reasons for or against it vary widely. Several lawmakers say that in their home districts, people’s living circumstances, age and health seem to guide usage as much as political beliefs.
For state Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, a state mandate would not change his decision not to wear a mask. At a recent groundbreaking event, he showed up without a mask. When one was offered, he refused it. Munson said a photo from the event captures everyone else — including City Council members and Republican Sen. Julie Rosen — in masks, while his face is bare.
“I just haven’t seen a need for it,” said Munson, maintaining that his focus is on washing his hands and social distancing. While he supports individuals making their own mask decisions, Munson said he is worried people will stop distancing as much with them. “It gives people a large sense of false security,” he said.
Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said he feels uncomfortable around people who don’t wear masks. He was in the room during the talks on police reform during which Democrats were masked and Republicans weren’t. At one point, a Republican colleague told him it was hard to hear him through his mask.
Mariani said he chose not to debate the legislator. But he said if he had, “I would have replied, ‘I care enough about your life and my life to wear one.’ It’s as simple as that.”
Some Democrats have criticized their GOP counterparts’ unwillingness to wear face masks. During that particular closed-door negotiation session in June, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, noted that Republicans were anticipating a smaller crowd.
Gazelka said he tries to be socially distant, but has not worn a mask at the Capitol and generally prefers not to use them. He said he complies if businesses like Menards or Costco require masks. He wore one during a tour in Minneapolis to work with local leaders on the response to the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd.
Still, Gazelka opposes the idea of a statewide mandate and said he believes it would hurt Walz politically.
“People are tired of ... being micromanaged,” Gazelka said. “It’s a sense of controlling your own destiny.”
For Republicans, a national leadership anxious to reopen the economy has offered mixed messages on masks.
Trump had not been wearing masks in public before Saturday, and masks were uncommon among attendees at his July 4th weekend events and at a recent rally in Oklahoma. But he has softened his tone in recent days, saying masks are good and that he has worn them.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said wearing a mask is the most important action Americans can take to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, meanwhile, has said he would make mask-wearing mandatory in public. He tweeted on July 4th that “one of the most patriotic things you can do is wear a mask.”
Guidance around masks has evolved since the coronavirus first hit the U.S. Health officials initially urged people to stop stocking up on masks, saying they should be reserved for health professionals facing shortages of protective equipment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance as it learned more about the spread of the virus and now instructs people to wear a cloth face covering in public, especially if social distancing is difficult.
The Walz administration is encouraging people to follow the guidelines with a #MaskUpMN social media campaign and have said they plan to do a paid advertising campaign as well.
The divide is also being felt in the fall campaigns that will determine every seat in the Legislature.
The state DFL Party has advised candidates and campaign staff to make calls rather than knock on doors this election season. Heather Keeler, a Democrat running for retiring Rep. Ben Lien’s Moorhead seat, is following that advice. She said that while traditional face-to-face contact is “where it’s at” on the campaign trail, her community’s health is more important.
She backs a mask mandate, noting that the widespread use of masks in some countries appears to have helped control the virus’ spread.
One of the hardest things about campaigning now is knowing how to approach people and comfortably interact with them, said Republican candidate John Burkel, who hopes to represent retiring Rep. Dan Fabian’s district in the far northwest corner of the state. He hasn’t done much door knocking but does speak to small groups and carries a mask in case people want him to wear it.
The idea of a mandate frustrates people in “rocks and cows country,” where Burkel joked that people socially distance by default.
“People just want to be able to be smart on their own and be safe. ... They know how to do it up there,” he said. “There’s a balance here that can be struck, and I don’t think mandates really speak to balance.”