Minnesota surpassed 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 Saturday, with the last of its 87 counties reporting its first positive test on the day a statewide mask-wearing mandate took effect to help slow the spread of the corona­virus.

Sparsely populated Lake of the Woods County in far northern Minnesota stood for more than a month as the only county in the state without a confirmed case. Now, it is one of six with fewer than 10 cases, according to Saturday’s data release from the Minnesota Department of Health.

The data again reflected an uptick in the number of new COVID-19 cases as the volume of tests completed in the state continues at high levels.

“50,000 laboratory-confirmed cases is a milestone we hoped we would not reach,” Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, said in an e-mail. “With high levels of the virus circulating in our communities, we will continue to have spread and cases, and there will be some Minnesotans who develop severe and fatal illnesses.”

The Health Department reported five more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the statewide toll to 1,571 since the start of the pandemic. Four of the newly reported deaths were residents of assisted-living or long-term care facilities.

COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus that surfaced late last year. Since the first case was reported in Minnesota in early March, 4,889  people have been hospitalized.

The mask mandate that took effect Saturday applies to most indoor spaces outside people’s homes, as well as outdoor spaces where workers can’t stay 6 feet from one another. It exempts children younger than 2 and people with certain medical conditions. It also specifies conditions where a face covering can be temporarily removed.

Minnesota is one of roughly 30 states that have imposed some degree of mask-wearing requirements, which have been widely supported by physicians and public health experts. They point to studies such as a report this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found a link between slowing the growth in cases and requiring masks for all health care workers at a group of hospitals in the Boston area.

Medical-grade masks might be more effective than cloth masks, but “any mask beats no mask,” Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said via e-mail.

Uneven compliance

Day One of the Minnesota mask mandate generated mixed reaction from merchants and customers.

In downtown Stillwater, few people walking the streets, even when near others, wore masks. But many retailers reported that customers were complying with the mandate once they entered stores.

Cassidy Vadner, 39, owner of a downtown gift shop, said compliance had been good except for some customers whose masks failed to cover their noses.

“About 20% of our customers wore them before today,” said Vadner, who is pleased with the mandate.

In Forest Lake, compliance appeared less uniform.

Among people walking about and shopping, several said they found masks unnecessary. And while many merchants in the city had posted signs saying masks were required, not all customers followed the rule. Several employees said they had to remind patrons without masks that they must wear them before entering.

At Downtown Barbers, owner Brent Anderson wore a mask around his neck, ready to pull it up if needed. He said it is hard to cut hair, holding your arms up in the air, with breathing partly obstructed.

“We were getting head rushes,” Anderson said. “We wear ’em in here off and on. I feel like I can’t lose customers” by requiring them.

West of the Twin Cities, in the town of Olivia, Carlotta Eischens, co-owner of the Master’s Coffee Shop, said a few customers wore masks Saturday morning who, without the mandate, likely wouldn’t have done so.

The shop has been advising customers that “masks are a must,” said Eischens, who supports the mandate for health reasons. But overall, the requirement likely will depress sales and discourage people from stopping in, she said.

“I anticipate that it’s probably going to hurt our business more, just because it seems like there are so many people that are against wearing them,” she said. “I think it definitely will hurt the numbers, but I think it was the right thing to do, for sure.”

Up north, Joe Henry, executive director of the tourism bureau in Lake of the Woods County, said opinions there likely won’t change much even though the county has seen its first COVID-19 case. Resort and business owners assumed the virus would eventually arrive, Henry said, and have been working for months to slow the spread.

“The community has had the safety nets up,” he said.

Meanwhile, a photo shared on social media of a Minnesota GOP retreat in Brainerd on Saturday showing some attendees not wearing masks drew criticism from DFLers. State GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan later issued a statement saying the party, which has opposed the rule, “provided both reusable and [disposable] masks for attendees and will continue to do so at any in-person events.

“However,” the statement read, “we are not law enforcement.”

‘Very concerned’

The state health data Saturday showed a net increase of 803 new coronavirus infections on a volume of about 18,227 completed tests. It was the third straight day of more than 700 cases and only the third time the state has reported more than 800 new cases since their peak in May. Back then, the state was completing a much smaller volume of tests.

What’s troubling is that the case growth since late June has been faster than the growth in the testing volume over the same time period, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“All the indicators to me right now in Minnesota say that we’re potentially just a few weeks behind what we’ve seen in these other states that have been houses on fire,” he said. “I’m very concerned.”

The latest numbers also show 287 patients are hospitalized, including 115 patients in intensive care. Daily tallies remain well below peaks of more than 600 hospitalized patients and about 260 in the ICU in late May.

People at greatest risk from COVID-19 include those 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities and those with underlying medical conditions ranging from lung disease and serious heart conditions to severe obesity and diabetes.


Staff writer Torey van Oot contributed to this report.