DULUTH — Duluth Mayor Emily Larson announced a 30-day mask mandate Thursday, as COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant rise in northeastern Minnesota.
Larson declared a local state of emergency, directing face coverings in public, indoor places for everyone age 5 and older, with some exceptions. The mandate begins at 5 p.m. Jan. 14 and ends at 5 p.m. Feb. 12.
“We know it is inconvenient, we know it is intrusive, but it’s still the right thing to do,” Larson said at a news conference.
She cited staff shortages at local hospitals — among the areas biggest employers — and their ability to provide timely care to patients with and without the coronavirus as a major reason behind the decision.
The City Council rejected an emergency mandate at its Monday meeting, instead throwing support behind Larson’s existing ability to declare an emergency.
Larson was joined Thursday by local health care leaders and public health officials from St. Louis County who pleaded with the public to follow the mandate.
“Masking is one of the most effective tools we have when it comes to preventing the spread of omicron,” St. Luke’s CEO Dr. Nick Van Deelen said of the new variant.
The region is expected to soon surpass virus surge levels experienced during 2020’s fall peak, he said, noting 162 St. Luke’s employees were out Thursday, more than half with COVID-19 breakthrough infections.
Three children have been hospitalized in St. Louis County with COVID-19 already in January, said Amy Westbrook, director of public health for the county. That follows 9 in the previous two months.
Coronavirus rates in the county are “skyrocketing,” she said, with the majority in the Duluth area.
Essentia Health’s new Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Kevin Casey, said hospital staff were working beyond capacity. The mandate will ease some of their strain, he said, and “save lives.”
Public places where masks will be required include businesses, churches, and any place the public can enter. And like the previous mask mandate, which ended last spring, the mandate doesn’t apply to actively eating and drinking in restaurants. It also doesn’t apply in areas of businesses not open to the public, as long as social distancing is maintained, or to law enforcement and first responders if it interferes with safety. It also doesn’t apply to child-care settings. Violations could result in warning letters, fines and ultimately, criminal prosecution for trespassing.
The city created posters for businesses to use, alerting customers of the city mandate. An email address — email@example.com — is set up for mask compliance issues.
Larson said she knows some will be grateful for the public health mandate and some will be angry, but she asked that people don’t harass frontline customer service workers, who’ve already suffered abuse throughout the pandemic.
“If you want to be mad, be mad at me,” she said. “People who are reminding you to do your job, your responsibility to follow the law, are just doing theirs.”
Duluth’s mandate comes on the heels of mandates in several other cities in the state, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Golden Valley and Hopkins.