Passengers on state Rep. Dave Baker’s Green Lake cruises in western Minnesota are supposed to wear face masks. But the crew won’t press those who don’t.
“If you are not wearing a mask, we will assume you have a medical condition, mental health condition or a disability that makes wearing a face covering intolerable,” reads a notice on the company’s Facebook page.
Across Minnesota, at a weekend rodeo in the northern Minnesota town of Effie, crowds defied state spectator limits for social distancing, spurred by a Facebook post inviting them to protest Gov. Tim Walz’s pandemic mandates. “If people would like to come and protest against this ridiculous Government Over Reach, feel free to do so,” rodeo organizer Cimarron Pitzen wrote. “I will not stand in the way of peoples ‘Right to Assemble.’ ”
While state health officials appeal to the public to wear face masks and observe social distancing to control the spread of COVID-19, opponents of the governor’s emergency orders are finding new ways to ignore or skirt the rules, which some state Republican officials have likened to authoritarian oppression and a few have gone so far as to link to Nazi rule.
On Tuesday, the state Republican Party said it asked for and received the resignation of a Wabasha County GOP board member who posted an image on the county party’s Facebook page of a uniformed Nazi soldier with a man wearing a star badge. Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were required to wear stars as a means of identification, which the post compared to the mask mandate.
“We are saddened by the vitriolic post and hope as we move forward that Republicans and Democrats alike will maintain the highest level of integrity, respect, and sensitivity,” state GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan tweeted. She did not address two Republican legislative candidates who have recently drawn similar analogies to Nazi Germany. Carnahan herself recently tweeted an attack against Walz’s mask mandate, saying “This is not North Korea, and you are not Kim Jong Un … or are you?”
Walz’s executive order last week on masks requires anyone in a public indoor space to put a covering over their nose and mouth. But the mandate has been swept up into the acrimonious political debate around the government’s COVID-19 response as some Republicans rebel against rules they see as government intrusion into their personal freedoms.
The rhetoric has spilled into real-time incidents, such as a couple expelled from a Walmart store in Marshall, Minn., on Saturday after donning face coverings emblazoned with swastikas, causing a commotion inside the store. But other gestures of defiance have been more muted.
A Republican Party retreat on Friday and Saturday inside Gull Lake Resort in Brainerd that featured multiple prominent Minnesota Republicans as speakers had many unmasked participants, based on photos from the event.
“None of you have your masks on, you lawbreakers,” House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt said at the retreat, according to a story in the Brainerd Dispatch. “I assure you these masks aren’t designed to keep you safe. These are designed to make sure you don’t want your kids to be back in school full time in the fall, and they’re designed to make sure they want to vote Democrat in the election.”
Daudt on Tuesday said those comments weren’t serious. “Obviously I was joking,” he said, adding that he drew laughs from the assembled party activists. He said he wore a mask to the event and only removed it during his speech.
“I’m not critical of masks or wearing them. I think they will help keep people safe,” Daudt said, though he said he disagrees with mandating it statewide.
Democrats, meanwhile, have expressed alarm at the politicization of the face mask mandate, particularly the rhetoric that has likened it to the Nazi Holocaust.
“This idea we’re seeing, that if you wear a mask then you’re a Democrat and if you don’t then you’re a Republican, I think it’s just very dangerous,” said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota DFL Party. “If we want to return to normalcy, we all have to be a part of the fight against this virus.”
Baker, the GOP lawmaker who runs the Green Lake cruises, maintains his policy of not asking about medical conditions is not meant to give customers an excuse not to mask up, though he is a critic of the statewide mask mandate.
“I’m not trying to find a loophole. We are asking people to wear masks,” said Baker, who also owns a Super 8 Hotel in the area that’s implemented the same policy. “I’m just being honest that we’re not going to confront you. Some people are looking for a fight, and I don’t want to put that onto my employees. They don’t make enough money for that.”
Baker added that he thinks business owners should be able to set their own mask policies. Kandiyohi County has had only one COVID death to date, he noted. Still, he said he hopes his business’ customers will abide by the mask mandate; last weekend, he said, nearly everyone riding his boat on Green Lake came with masks and wore them while in the boat’s closed-in lower deck.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office is charged with enforcing the mask mandate when it comes to businesses. Individual violators can be cited with a petty misdemeanor and fined $100. Business owners can be charged with a misdemeanor, fined $1,000 or even jailed up to 90 days. Civil penalties can also be levied against businesses which can come with a fine of up to $25,000.
But given the sheer number of Minnesota businesses, spokesman John Stiles said the office has little bandwidth to do proactive enforcement and is mainly focused on compliance if it gets reports of errant businesses.
The office has already been working with businesses to help them understand and comply with other COVID-related orders from Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement.
“In the vast majority of cases, we reach common understanding and agreement that leads to voluntary compliance,” Ellison said. “My office is also charged with enforcing the law and the governor’s executive orders when need be when we cannot gain compliance. We also take that duty seriously.”