Gov. Tim Walz’s mask mandate has irked some Minnesota business leaders who see the move as excessive and an affront to keeping peace inside factories.
“We don’t need a governor to come in and say that every single employee in our factory and warehouse needs to wear a mask,” said Patrick McHale, CEO of the Minneapolis-based Graco. The new edict “doesn’t make sense for a lot of jobs we have.”
Under the new mandate, properly distanced office workers get a pass on mask wearing when seated inside their cubicle. But factory workers must wear masks, even if they are 50 feet apart and having no contact with the public, he said.
“It creates divisiveness between the shop and the office, which we try to avoid as much as possible,” said McHale, who said he called Walz’s staff Monday to complain.
McHale said he and his human resources department and factory managers have gotten an earful from some of the firm’s 1,500 workers in Minnesota. Some complain the masks are too hot. Others complain their glasses fog up. Still others just hate the intrusion.
McHale’s beef with the new emergency order is compounded because Graco, a multinational maker of industrial pumps and sprayers, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to move workstations, install plastic barriers, adopt cleaning protocols and implement COVID-19 pay benefits for workers hit suddenly by illness or child-care responsibilities with the sudden shut down of schools.
“If the mask order wouldn’t have been a one size fits all, if it had said [wear masks indoors] where appropriate or where social distancing can’t be maintained, or if it had given us some flexibility to make it fit our business environment, it would have been much more palatable,” McHale said.
Jim Owens, CEO of the Vadnais Heights-based adhesives maker H.B. Fuller, echoed McHale’s concerns. He said he generally supports the mandate, but he has told Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, that if people are socially distanced at work and don’t work with the public they shouldn’t have to wear a mask.
“We now have the most extreme rule in the country by not factoring in the social distancing,” Owens said.
The criticism comes as Walz on Wednesday touted the state’s plan to distribute 4 million masks to help companies comply with the order that went into effect Saturday.
Many retailers and restaurant owners praised the mandate for providing a uniform standard that simplifies enforcement and enhances worker safety at a time when COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the state and around much of the country. Critics, however, have scoffed that the mandate tramples American freedoms and ignores that workplaces already adopted many measures to keep workers safe.
Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said manufacturers were caught off guard. “They were surprised and we were surprised too” by the “very broad” mandate, Loon said.
Before the mandate was issued, the chamber talked extensively with the governor’s staff about masks, but the discussions mostly focused on “customer-facing” businesses.
So a mandate that includes workers who never interact with the public was a bit of a shock, he said. The order also surprised chamber members because early on every Minnesota business had to give the state a detailed safety plan for how it would prevent the virus’s spread.
“They expended time and resources to design and implement robust safety protocols, only to find out that, now, they may or may not be in compliance” with the new executive order, Loon said. “So there is lots of anxiety.”
Loon doesn’t expect the executive order will change, but he hopes greater clarity will be injected into the state’s instructions for how businesses should follow the order.
Nancy Leppink, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said the governor’s office, her agency and DEED are fielding calls from businesses about the mask mandate.
The executive order is “clear” that “all workers” must wear masks indoors unless they are isolated and working alone in an enclosed space, she said, emphasizing that even office workers must wear masks.
They can “temporarily” remove them, but only when seated inside their socially distanced and walled cubicles. When they stand or step away, they must put the mask back on, “even if there is no one 20 feet from them,” Leppink said. Factory workers who don’t work alone inside an enclosed space must do the same.
She said her agency is working to help businesses improve the mask-wearing experience, including finding better fitting masks and eyewear that won’t fog with mask use.
“Basically, at this point, we need everyone to do their part,” Leppink said. “We know that many of the things the state has done to keep this pandemic under control are not easy. A lot of it is hard. These decisions are not made without recognizing the effort that everyone is going to need to make for the state to be successful.”