Days after the city of Ramsey voted to stop enforcing Gov. Tim Walz's statewide mask mandate, Mayor Mark Kuzma has vowed to overturn the measure, calling it a "political stunt" by his City Council colleagues.
"We don't have the authority to usurp the government mandate," said Kuzma, who voted against the measure, which prohibits the city from using its resources to enforce the governor's executive order.
"This was a political stunt by the council. I don't think they thought this through. This is not done by any means. I will do my best to get this reversed."
Ramsey officials who introduced the resolution argued the governor's mask mandate infringes on individuals' constitutional rights.
Kuzma returned to work Monday, a day before the City Council's 4-3 vote and after recovering from COVID-19. The mayor along with some Ramsey residents, business owners and the city's police chief say the council action has brought fear, confusion and division to the northwest metro suburb, which is believed to be the first community in Minnesota to openly defy the state directive.
David Troy, who has lived in Ramsey for eight years, said he has witnessed tensions firsthand.
"I saw somebody yelling at another person at a gas station" about wearing a mask, Troy said. "It's now business versus business. It does not accomplish anything. It seems like its purpose is to divide."
At minimum, the City Council action has muddied the waters, said Kuzma, who added that his e-mail and voice mail have been loaded with comments, mostly from residents opposed to the action, but including a few from those who approved of it.
The resolution states that no city resources "physical, financial or otherwise" shall be used to enforce Walz's emergency executive orders. But some in the city have interpreted that as meaning those living and working in the city are no longer required to wear masks in public.
"You still have to wear masks in our buildings," Kuzma said. Liquor stores, he warned, could be fined and "their license could be in jeopardy" if they relax on the mandate.
Kuzma said he was unsure if the council resolution prevents the city from providing masks for city employees or posting signs in parks reminding users to maintain a 6-foot distance from each other.
Police Chief Jeff Katers said officers responded to 43 complaints about masks over the past year. While the City Council vote implies that police should not get involved in mask enforcement, Katers said officers have a duty to respond to such calls and complaints.
For now, Katers said, he is telling his officers that the new resolution will mean "no operational change for us. The Police Department is required to uphold state law."
Discussion over the issue surfaced this week after Council Members Ryan Heineman and Chelsee Howell introduced the motion. Two other members joined them in voting in favor of the resolution.
Heineman said Thursday that the mask order, on the heels of Walz's statewide stay-at-home order last year, left many residents feeling like the mandate was "an overreach by the government."
"Others fear more executive orders are coming. It's time to take a stand," he said. "We are not saying not to wear masks. We encourage everybody to take their own health seriously. We are entitled to freedom and liberty."
In a statement this week, the state Attorney General's Office, said: "Other jurisdictions across Minnesota have recognized the legal and public health rationale for the Governor's executive orders, and public health officials agree on the importance of wearing a mask to protect oneself and each other. These executive orders take precedence over the measures passed by any lower unit of government."
It is not immediately clear what liability the city might face as a result of the vote, which was discouraged by City Attorney Joe Langel. Troy, for one, wonders if it will cost the city in the long run.
"I am not sure what expenses we are saving," compared to what the city might be forced to spend on future litigation, he said. Looking at it from a fiscally responsible position, he added, "we didn't save any resources."
The new rules won't change policies at Coborn's, said the grocery store's manager Vicki Wredberg.
"People will still need to wear masks," she said.
Others seem more flexible on the matter.
Heather Buzzell, the owner of Sunwood Nutrition in Ramsey, said she tries to stay out of the politics of mask wearing. She and her employees wear masks, and they ask customers to wear masks as well, but Buzzell said she's not going to kick someone out for not wearing a mask in her store.
"I made that choice because I don't know why they're not wearing a mask," she said.
Some people will be upset no matter what the store does anyway, said Buzzell. "It's a hot button for people, and I get it. We're respectful either way."
Buzzell said the City Council's decision this week likely won't change people's minds on the issue, since it's such a personal decision. While most people are wearing masks, she said, the mask mandate wasn't diligently enforced by local law enforcement.
"I feel like, in all honesty, it just kind of stirred a pot up, put something on paper and now people are mad about it again," she said, adding that eventually the controversy will subside.
The weather is too nice, she said, for people to stay upset for too long.
"This too shall pass," she said.
Staff writer Matt McKinney contributed to this report.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768