Mask ordinance debate

Beth Byers takes off her mask after leaving the Mankato Post Office to pick up mail Monday.

{child_flags:featured}COVERING UP

Mankato enacts mask mandate

{child_byline}By Mark Fischenich

mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com

{/child_byline}

MANKATO — Starting Friday, anyone entering a supermarket, convenience store, mall, restaurant, big-box retail establishment and most other public indoor spaces in Mankato will have to first put on a cloth mask under an ordinance passed by the City Council Monday night.

“Why not be proactive? This is really about people’s lives and about people’s livelihoods,” said Council member Jenn Melby-Kelley, the primary proponent of the ordinance.

Melby-Kelley, speaking just before the council heard from dozens of citizens on both sides of the issue, is one of four council members who have shown various levels of support for the mandate in the past two weeks. A fifth supporter was required, however, because the mask mandate was proposed as an emergency ordinance that can only be enacted with a supermajority on the seven-member council under Mankato’s city charter.

Council members Dennis Dieken and Mark Frost continued their opposition Monday night, leaving freshman Council member Jessica Hatanpa as the deciding vote after she previously voted against holding a special meeting and public hearing to consider the mandate.

“This has been an impossible situation,” Hatanpa said. “It’s very clear it’s a 50-50 split (in the community) and everybody has research supporting what they would say. ... I have lost more sleep than I can explain to you.”

Hatanpa gave a hint to the 5-2 vote that would follow more than two hours later, with her as the crucial member of the supermajority, when she noted the efforts made by City Manager Pat Hentges to address her concerns.

The ordinance now clarifies individuals and businesses will receive only a warning for a first offense, with businesses potentially facing a $200 administrative penalty for subsequent offenses.

For individuals with repeated violations who refuse to comply, the city will request judicial approval to treat infractions 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 other common “payable offenses” allowed by the courts including expired license tabs, smoking in a non-smoking area, and littering.

The ordinance also specifies 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 in their seats and socially distanced (once they’re standing, the mask is required); daycare centers; and residential facilities such as nursing homes and crisis shelters.

Hatanpa expressed hope the ordinance would not be enforced in a heavy-handed way.

“A lot of ordinances exist to give law enforcement a tool to help people stay safe when they’re not making good decisions,” she said.

When Council member Karen Foreman made a motion to pass the ordinance, Hatanpa agreed to second it after Foreman agreed to amend the mandate to apply only to those 12 years old and older — up from age two.

Along with Hatanpa and Melby-Kelley, words of support for the ordinance came from Foreman and Council President Mike Laven early in the meeting.

“You’re wearing the mask to protect others,” Laven said.

Foreman reminded the council about the vocal opposition to constructing roundabouts on Highway 22 to reduce the number of fatal and serious-injury crashes. Within a year of their completion, Foreman said she heard only praise for the traffic circles. She also said the mask mandate would be only temporary and could reduce the likelihood the coronavirus will worsen and force even more drastic measures, such as the statewide order earlier in the pandemic to close businesses completely.

Mayor Najwa Massad, who initially opposed a mandate when it was briefly discussed in early June, later was in the 4-3 majority to hold the special meeting and public hearing. On Monday, Massad said she “felt more comfortable” with the ordinance because of the refinements made in recent days.

Because of the pandemic, the public hearing — which is required before passage of any ordinance — was conducted electronically with both council members and residents participating remotely.

And participate they did.

For an hour and 15 minutes, residents and non-residents alike took turns — two minutes at a time — talking about why the mandate was a necessary and appropriate reaction to a serious health emergency or an ill-timed and ineffective example of government overreach.

Linda Good of Mankato, saying she was speaking for 20 senior citizens, was first on the list. Correctly anticipating that some opponents of the ordinance would decry the loss of their individual liberties, Good referenced the “inalienable right” that was identified in the Declaration of Independence even before “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness.”

“’Life’ is the first and primary right,” Good said, telling council members that their responsibility as leaders was to protect the health and safety of their constituents.

Kevin Bradley, however, said pandemic-related anxiety is causing societal harm, that predictions about the COVID-19 deaths have been widely off the mark and that the death rate has been declining for several weeks.

“A mask mandate perpetuates a community-wide fear that’s not based on facts,” Bradley said.

Tim Bremer talked of rigged numbers and media sensationalism, saying he and his extended family can think of nearly a thousand people they know and none of them have died of COVID-19. And he suggested that mask-wearing would deprive people of brain oxygen while reducing their opportunity to strengthen their immune system.

“You’re getting dumber, weaker and more prone to get sicker,” Bremer said of mask wearers. “... A vote for this is a betrayal of America.”

Matt Rightmire, who is involved in the team working to make it safe to reopen Gustavus Adolphus College later this summer, said he’s been studying the science of the pandemic for weeks. His conclusion: the ordinance is just one part of a broad effort needed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

“It’s still a pandemic with no cure and no vaccine,” Rightmire said. “... It’s unprecedented, and stopping it will take unprecedented action.”

Shawn Andrews, by contrast, said masks give people a false sense of security, and a mandate should be reserved for when death rates are increasing and hospitals are overwhelmed.

“Let’s save it for that time rather than now when they’re not really needed,” Andrews said.

But 68-year-old disabled veteran Carey Lenn said the ordinance would be the type of public safety protection he needs.

“I can defend myself with a thug on the street,” Lenn said. “I can’t defend myself from people walking around Target not wearing a mask.”

While mask-wearing has been politicized for months in America, attitudes about mask mandates have shifted somewhat since Melby-Kelley proposed a local ordinance two weeks ago. Cases have been rising in most states, and governors of even solidly Republican states such as Texas, Kansas and West Virginia are now requiring masks for most residents in indoor public places.

Minnesota is one of a handful of states where cases have been declining, although the immediate Mankato area has been going in the opposite direction since June 20. In the three months since Blue Earth County had its first COVID-19 case on March 16, the number grew to 180 by June 20. In the 14 days since that date, there have been 299 additional cases — something attributed largely to young people flooding newly reopened bars and restaurants, most not wearing masks and many flouting social distancing requirements.

With new cases more concentrated in younger populations, death rates have been dropping significantly in Minnesota, though, as has the number of hospitalizations.

The new ordinance, which applies only to people “able to medically tolerate a face covering,” will automatically expire after 60 days unless five members of the council voted to extend it.

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