Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz ordered a mask mandate Wednesday in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus as cases continue to rise across the state and in St. Louis County.
The new executive order will take effect Saturday and applies to indoor public places and office settings. It comes one day after President Donald J. Trump publicly endorsed wearing masks for the first time and recognized the virus will get worse before the country sees improvement.
Walz said he holds a rosier outlook for Minnesota, though COVID-19 statewide cases climbed by another 507 on Wednesday.
Five new cases were reported in St. Louis County, where the average daily case rate is more than twice as high as two weeks ago. The county averaged 4.5 cases per day over the last week, compared to a 2.1 daily case average two weeks ago.
Data in recent months is progressively showing more upside to wearing masks and the governor said by the “middle of August” the state will know if his new mandate is working. A 90-95 percent compliance rate is the goal of state health officials and could prevent Walz from dialing back activities he’s reopened in recent weeks, including reopening indoor occupancy at bars and restaurants, which are largely blamed for the state’s recent uptick in cases.
“Just put the mask on — it’s the simplest of things,” he said during a conference call Wednesday with Greater Minnesota media, later saying that “I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around where the downside is.”
Minnesota joins more than 20 other states, as well as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, in enacting a bipartisan mask mandate to fight COVID-19. Republican governors in Indiana and Ohio also ordered face coverings on Wednesday.
As of Saturday, Minnesotans are required to wear a face covering in all public indoor spaces and businesses, unless they are alone, including when they are waiting outside to enter an indoor public space. Workers are required to wear a face covering when working outdoors in situations in which social distancing cannot be maintained.
People are also required to wear a mask when at a business, either indoors or outdoors, that requires face coverings.
Violations will be a petty misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $100. Businesses can also be fined, but DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said the state isn’t expecting businesses to act as the “mask police” and should deal with people refusing to wear one as they would with other difficult customers.
“The first call should not be to the cops,” he said. Walz, in an earlier news conference, said the mandate should not produce a viral moment online where people lose their jobs. “We don't want someone to accidentally get famous on the internet by throwing a tantrum.”
The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported 507 newly confirmed coronavirus cases, raising the state's total to 47,961 since the pandemic began. Four new deaths were reported, increasing Minnesota's death toll to 1,552.
Wearing a mask in public has become increasingly politicized as the COVID-19 pandemic has trudged forward since the first case was reported in Minnesota in March.
On the Iron Range, many have eschewed masks in public and taken to social media to criticize business chains such as Target, Walmart, Menards and Super One for requiring masks in their stores as recently as this week.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, called the mandate “terrible” as he cited the efforts taken by the business community and individuals to wear masks, and said rural communities were well-below average for infection and death rates. His comments were echoed by Minnesota GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan in an interview Wednesday with the Mesabi Tribune.
“We certainly understand the need for safety practices,” she said, referencing social distancing, washing hands, using hand sanitizer and wearing masks as necessary. “The rub comes with a mandate. Do we really need a statewide mandate to tell us what we’re already doing?”
Walz, when asked about Gazelka’s comments, flatly said “He’s wrong. He’s wrong about the science.” The governor added he was “heartened” by the apparent new stance of the White House to support wearing a face covering, though a national mandate has not been issued under Trump’s executive authority.
The president, in a Tuesday press conference, broke with his previous public statements about coronavirus trends and publicly supported wearing masks, saying “It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better. Something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is. It’s what we have.”
Trump continued: “I have no problem with the masks. I view it this way: Anything that potentially can help, and that certainly can potentially help, is a good thing. I have no problem. I carry it. I wear it. You saw me wearing it a number of times, and I’ll continue.”
The statewide mandate will supersede recent mask ordinances in cities like Duluth and Rochester, to name a few, and will be required for students attending any form of in-person classes this fall.
State Department of Education officials and the governor are expected to issue guidance on schools sometime next week, which could include in-person classes, distance learning or a hybrid model. Walz said compliance with the mask mandate is an easy and inexpensive way to move closer to a sense of normalcy.
Dr. Noel Schmidt, superintendent of Rock Ridge Public Schools on the Iron Range, said last week that districts are preparing how to better educate students and parents on wearing masks and social distancing in school buildings.
In an email Wednesday, he wrote that he was not surprised by the mandate requiring K-12 students and staff to wear masks, citing the view of health care experts.
“Other than being an occasional nuisance for students and staff, I don’t really see how the masks will hinder learning by students,” Schmidt wrote. “Once our students and staff become accustomed to wearing a mask, they will become used to them, as people who wear glasses, hearing aids and contact lenses. It’s really not going to be much different.”
Mesabi Tribune reporter Leah Ryan and MPR News contributed to this report.