Nearly 4 million disposable masks are being shipped to chambers of commerce and other groups across Minnesota as state officials prepare to launch the statewide mask mandate that began early Saturday.

Minnesota joined nearly 30 other states this week when Gov. Tim Walz announced the face-covering requirement. Most large cities in the state as well as many businesses had already made mask-wearing mandatory.

While cities can enforce stricter guidelines, the state mandate, issued under the governor's public health emergency powers, sets a minimum standard that applies to all indoor public spaces and businesses. "There's a sense of relief," said Angie Whitcomb, chief executive at the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce. "It has leveled the playing field and taken the onus off of the businesses" to set their own policies.

Whitcomb expects to receive a shipment of 74,000 masks early next week from the state. Those will be divided among the seven local chambers of commerce in Scott County.

Her organization will have 20,000 masks to distribute to businesses in the city, including to firms that are not chamber members. "This is a resource that we've been given by the state to share with businesses," she said.

Having masks available should make it easier for businesses as the mandate takes effect.

"Businesses are already struggling now with the limits on occupancy," Whitcomb said, referring to restrictions imposed by Walz earlier this summer to help slow the spread of COVID-19. "I think they wanted to tie it in with the governor's executive order and make sure that chambers could help businesses not be negatively impacted by this mandate but rather give them tools so they don't have to turn away a customer."

The mask mandate is intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and prevent new infections, which so far have sickened at least 49,488 Minnesotans.

Another 773 new cases were announced Friday, the second consecutive day where cases topped 700. Nearly 3,300 cases were confirmed since Monday.

Five more people died from COVID-19 complications, bringing the fatality total to 1,566. Two of the deaths were among residents of long-term care facilities, which account for 77% of all deaths.

Most fatalities and hospitalizations have been among those with underlying health conditions, including heart, lung and kidney disease, that make it difficult to recover.

About 10% of confirmed cases have required hospital-level care, with 278 people now hospitalized and 108 needing intensive care. Although there was a one-day net decrease of four patients, hospital admissions have gradually been inching up but are still well below their peak in late May when 606 people were getting hospital care.

Testing delays

Friday's case growth was detected among the 16,789 COVID-19 diagnostic tests that were processed.

Over the past week, there has been a nearly 13% increase in testing with a 10% increase in new cases.

There have been reports of delays in getting testing results at some labs, health officials said Friday.

"We are concerned that this does have the potential of interfering with our desire to ramp up our capacity," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

Since the pandemic began, testing availability has been limited from time to time due to shortages of supplies needed to collect specimens and process them.

Malcolm said the state and health systems are monitoring shortages and redirecting samples to labs that have the ability to handle the volume.

Delays could hamper contact investigations and tracing that are part of the state's strategy to isolate anyone infected or who has been exposed.

"When there are delays in getting results it means we can't be as effective in our work," said state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann. "For those individuals who are waiting for their results it is really important that you are staying out of circulation."

Health officials said that the mask mandate does have the potential to lower the growth in new COVID-19 infections, but it will take at least three weeks to see any results.

"We do think that masking helps, and it is also important to reinforce that masking isn't by itself a magic answer," said Malcolm, adding that social distancing and hand hygiene are still important components of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Masks will be required for anyone over the age of 5. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 are encouraged to wear masks but are not required. Masks should not be worn by those younger than 2 as it can present a suffocation risk.

People with medical conditions or mental health or disability needs that make it difficult to tolerate a face covering are exempt from the order.

The order does not apply to private residences or living places, but masks are required at workplaces, bars, restaurants, retail stores, on public transportation and in any indoor public setting or business.

Businesses prepare

At Ace Hardware & Paint in Apple Valley, employees printed signs Friday afternoon to hang around the store to explain the new requirement when the statewide mandate takes effect Saturday. Store supervisor Austin Chouanard also instructed younger employees not to be confrontational if they get pushback from customers.

Until now, a mask hasn't been required to enter the store, and employees were only recently required to put them on when talking to customers who were wearing them, Chouanard said. Now, everyone will have to wear them all the time.

Chouanard, who was wearing a cloth "Star Wars" face mask Friday, isn't sure what to expect from some regulars, such as the customer who said he refused to shop at Menards when that company required masks to enter.

"He said, 'I'm so glad you don't require one,' " Chouanard recalled.

A few customers might put up a stink about the new requirement, but employees will merely have to point out that the store is complying with the law, Chouanard said.

"In a week or two, everyone will be OK with it," he said. "At least I hope."

Little will change at Patina's eight boutiques in the Twin Cities because employees and customers have been required to wear masks since the stores reopened in May.

"We're used to it," said Karin Tappero, the boutique's district manager. "We were ahead of the curve on this." The store mandate made it easier to entice wary employees to return to work and made some customers more comfortable in coming out of their homes to shop, she said.

Most people coming through the door have cooperated, especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul where city officials have mandated masks in indoor public spaces.

"In the suburban stores, it's been more of a struggle," Tappero said. For those who don't have a mask or don't want to buy one, Patina will offer a free disposable mask or offer other shopping options such as curbside pickup.

"It's really only a small percentage of people who don't want to wear a mask," she said.