{child_flags:featured}Public to weigh in on Mankato mask mandate hearing

{child_byline}By Mark Fischenich

mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com

{/child_byline}

MANKATO — A proposed ordinance requiring masks to be worn in most indoor public spaces in Mankato has been modified to identify places where face-coverings won’t be mandated, to potentially reduce the criminal penalties for violators, and to delay the effective date by a few days.

The refined ordinance will be adopted or rejected by the City Council Monday night after residents get a chance to express their support and opposition during a public hearing that begins at 6 p.m.

The mask ordinance aims to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus at a time when the number of cases is spiking nationally and within Mankato. Because of the pandemic, the public hearing on the emergency ordinance will be conducted electronically with both council members and residents participating remotely.

Hentges said people wishing to testify should register by noon Monday, and he expects all those who register will be given a chance to speak — although comments will be kept to two minutes or less per person. People will be heard mostly in the order they registered, with residents speaking via Zoom or by phone. Mayor Najwa Massad said last week that it’s possible comments will be alternated between supporters and opponents of the ordinance.

“We’ll keep on rotating through the system,” Hentges said, predicting the hearing will last less than 90 minutes. “Everybody will have a chance to talk.”

Based on testimony in the past over controversial ordinances restricting indoor smoking and the legal age for buying tobacco, Hentges expects about 40 people will comment. If they make their points quickly, there may be time to hear from people who didn’t register in advance.

“I’m figuring about an hour,” he said. “We’ll set that once we know how many people are talking.”

Mask-wearing has become a political issue for many in America, and Free Press stories about the proposed mask mandate prompted lengthy and sometimes contentious arguments on the newspaper’s Facebook page. The issue has also divided the City Council. Two weeks ago, by a four-three vote, the council agreed to hold a special meeting on June 29 to discuss a potential ordinance and whether to hold a public hearing giving Mankatoans a chance to weigh in. At that meeting, by the same 4-3 vote, the council scheduled the public hearing for July 6.

Because it’s an emergency ordinance, it can become effective almost immediately upon passage. But as an emergency ordinance, it requires a super-majority of five votes and it automatically expires after 60 days unless five members of the council vote to extend it.

Council members Mark Frost, Jessica Hatanpa and Dennis Dieken opposed holding the special meeting and then opposed scheduling the public hearing — saying they preferred letting local businesses, residents and visitors decide when masks are necessary and indicating they would support a $50,000 public relations campaign encouraging mask-wearing.

Frost, Hatanpa and Dieken fell one vote short of prevailing on the previous procedural votes. If they continue to oppose the mask mandate on Monday night, however, they will deny ordinance supporters the super-majority required to enact it.

The status of the pandemic has changed since the council first began discussing the possibility of a mask ordinance. COVID-19 cases jumped dramatically in Mankato, tied in part to large groups of unmasked young people defying social distancing rules at a pair of local bars.

Nationally, the pandemic is slamming numerous states, and Thursday brought 50,000 new cases across the United States — a record one-day increase since the disease arrived in America early this year.

A growing list of cities across the country now require masks, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. Pennsylvania, Oregon and Kansas recently imposed statewide mandates, joining North Carolina, California, Nevada, Rhode Island, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, New Mexico, Illinois and Washington, according to a tally by National Public Radio. And Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas on Thursday mandated masks across most of that state.

Some of the changes to the proposed Mankato ordinance appeared aimed at addressing objections offered by Hatanpa, who worried about people — including children — being prosecuted in criminal court for failing to wear a mask. The ordinance now states directly what Hentges previously said would be the enforcement strategy — that individuals and businesses will receive only a warning for a first offense. Businesses would potentially face a $200 administrative penalty for subsequent offenses.

As for individuals repeatedly violating the ordinance, the city will request judicial approval to treat offenses as “a payable offense” with a fine of $100 plus court fees and no court appearance required. That would be similar to the repercussions of “class II nuisance violations” of city ordinances rather than a misdemeanor that carries maximum penalties of up to $1,000 or even jail time. Other common “payable offenses” allowed by the courts include expired license tabs, smoking in a non-smoking area, and littering.

The ordinance also now includes a list of numerous exemptions to the mask requirement, including indoor athletic facilities such as fitness centers and gyms; movie theaters and other indoor entertainment venues (as long as people are six feet apart); people eating and drinking in restaurants and bars as long as they’re seated and socially distanced; and residential facilities such as nursing homes and crisis shelters.

In most other public indoor spaces, cloth coverings of the nose and mouth would be mandated for anyone three years old and older and “able to medically tolerate a face covering.”

The other notable change to the ordinance is its effective date. Originally, if it receives five votes following the public hearing, it would have been enforceable starting Tuesday. The revised ordinance sets the effective date as Friday to provide time for the city attorney to seek judicial approval for the reduced criminal penalty.

Those interested in watching Monday’s hearing can find links at the top of the agenda on the city’s webpage at www.mankatomn.gov/government/city-council/meeting-agendas-and-information. Just click on the July 6 meeting, and there will be various alternative methods for tuning in. There’s also a “register” link for people looking to get on the list of testifiers.

People without internet access can call the city information line at 311 during business hours on Monday to learn how to listen to the meeting on the telephone and, if interested, sign up by noon Monday to voice an opinion.

Those who prefer not to speak publicly during the hearing have the option of expressing support or opposition to the ordinance via Mankato’s public-input webpage Sound Off Mankato — an option that can be taken even over the holiday weekend. As of mid-afternoon Friday, 52 people had taken the survey with 67% favoring the mask requirement and 33% opposed.

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