IRON RANGE - The coronavirus was slow to arrive on the Iron Range, a region encompassing a string of small cities in the northern part of St. Louis County.

After nearly three months after the onset of the pandemic in Minnesota, the county’s health department reported 161 cases at the end of June, about 70 percent of the people infected with the virus living in Duluth.

But so far the month of July has introduced 107 new cases to the county, or a 66 percent increase in cases, many of which are appearing in northern communities once considered far removed from the flare ups in more populated areas in the state.

As of Friday, health officials reported 16 new cases in the county - the highest number yet, bringing the countywide totals to 268 cases and 16 deaths.

Officials at the state Health Department said Friday that statewide figures have jumped to 45,013 and 1,533 deaths. State officials have recently reported 600-plus cases per day on several occasions and an uptick in hospitalizans.

The majority of cases across the state and in the county has been found in younger people, many in their 20s, many of whom gathered in groups over the holidays and are frequenting reopened bars and restaurants. State officials said Friday they will enforce mask-wearing in such establishments since they have received more than 120 complaints statewide of unmasked servers and waitresses and overcrowding.

More than half the governors across the United States have issued statewide mask requirements. But in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz has yet to announce a mask-wearing mandate, due to a growing political divide on the matter, despite pressure from the Minnesota Medical Association and the Retail Industry Leaders Association. Counties and cities across the state have begun to throw their weight in support of mask-wearing, including St. Louis County Commissioner Patrick Boyle who last week penned a letter to the governor, urging him “to mandate the wearing of masks in indoor places statewide as soon as possible.”

The Duluth City Council on Monday night passed an emergency ordinance, effective immediately, requiring masks in many indoor public spaces. The cities of Hibbing and Virginia have not publicly discussed whether it would support a mask-wearing ordinance, though the mayors and some city councilors are encouraging residents to put on a mask and social distance as precautionary measures in cities that have some of the highest rates per capita of older adults and people with underlying health concerns in the state.

Meanwhile, Walmart, Target and CVS have made announcements to begin requiring customers and staff wear masks while shopping in their stores, some of which are scattered across the Iron Range.

The new rules have created often politicized debate among residents, who are taking to local social media pages to support or denounce mask-wearing and the practicing of social distancing. The internal debates on the Iron Range comes as the historically blue region has in recent years turned a reddish hue, as residents helped elect pro-Trump U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber to serve the Eighth Congressional District. None of the regional state senators or representatives have taken a stance on mask-wearing.

The regional debate mirrors those on the national scale, where conservatives argue that being told to wear a mask violates their personal freedoms. Others simply denounce the severity of the coronavirus, despite the rising death and hospitalization counts across the country and statewide. Supporters for wearing masks cite recommendations from the World Health Organization, Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the Minnesota and St. Louis County health departments.

The majority of American support wearing masks. About 72 percent of adults say they always or very often wear a mask in public, according to a Gallup poll conducted between June 29 and July 5. Roughly 18 percent said they never or rarely wear a mask.

The record-setting coronavirus caseload in St. Louis County arrives after several cases were tallied in mines, assisted living facilities and sports programs in the northeast reaches of the county, the largest by total area in the state.

The United Steelworkers union on Wednesday confirmed two new cases of the coronavirus found among workers at ArcelorMittal’s Minorca Mine in Virginia and U.S. Steel’s Minntac in Mountain Iron. Company officials on Wednesday said staff who were exposed to the infected individuals went into quarantine, though the number of workers sent home were not disclosed.

The news came less than one week after Cleveland-Cliffs reported that an employee tested positive for the coronavirus, then the first confirmed case of COVID-19 among staff at the six taconite operations in Minnesota.

The Hummingbird assisted-living facility in Meadowlands, about midway between Hibbing and Duluth, announced Thursday that nine of its 13 residents and two staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. It is the first facility of its kind to suffer an outbreak outside of Duluth.

Also on Thursday, the Virginia Parks and Recreation Department moved to postpone its youth baseball and softball program for 14 days after receiving information that a student-athlete tested positive for the coronavirus.

School administrators, teachers, coaches and parents across the region are now holding conversations on how to operate athletic events and school in the time of the pandemic without endangering kids and their parents and guardians.

The case in Virginia was reported several weeks after the Bois Forte Reservation and businesses in Tower, Ely and Hibbing, among other cities, have publicly announced cases of the coronavirus.


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