HIBBING — Across Minnesota, cities, counties and schools have been greenlighting new mask mandates after federal authorities recently recommended that people should wear masks in indoor spaces amid the spread of Delta-fueled coronavirus cases.
Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth have instituted mask requirements in city-owned buildings. Cook and St. Louis counties have patrons wear masks inside government locations regardless of vaccination status. Minnesota’s public colleges, universities, technical and trade schools are requiring faculty and students to wear masks indoors. The Duluth Public Schools and Hibbing High School are requiring masks in the classrooms.
But in the largest city on the Iron Range, Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata on Monday evening told councilors he’s “not playing doctor” and would not support a mask-wearing mandate in city-owned buildings. “Unless there’s a federal or state mandate for emergency, I’ll vote against it.”
The number of new cases in St. Louis County as of Tuesday was 84, according to data from the county’s database. Since March 2020, at least 1,212 people have been hospitalized in the county due to COVID-19, with 241 in intensive-care units. So far in September, there have been 17 hospitalizations and four of those have been in ICUs.
With 69.3 percent of the county’s eligible population vaccinated — people ages 16 and older — health officials and hospitals continue to stress the importance of mask-wearing for all adults and kids. Medical officials at Fairview Range and Essentia Health say the suggestions come at a time when facilities are nearing capacity amid a surge of hospitalizations in locations including Hibbing and Virginia.
Cannata is not alone in speaking out against a possible mask mandate. At the Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday, all councilors except one noted they too would vote down an agenda item to require masks be worn by staff or citizens inside public buildings.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of forcing anyone to wear them,” Councilor James Bayliss said, adding that he would continue to support the city placing free masks in the building for people who choose to put them on.
The mayor and most of the councilors present, in addition to the city attorney and various other staff members, did not wear a mask on Tuesday in Hibbing City Hall. Councilor Jennifer Hoffman Saccoman was the lone individual who wore a mask, a practice followed by many elected officials who live elsewhere across the state.
“I’m concerned about our staff,” she said. “How do we protect our staff if people are coming into the buildings and sneezing and coughing without masks?”
City Administrator Pete Hyduke said he joined Hoffman Saccoman in speaking with Hibbing Public Schools about the newly imposed mask mandate for staff and K-12 students. Superintendent Richard Aldrich provided them with data showing nine positive COVID-19 cases from Sept. 6-10 in Hibbing, and six students at Lincoln Elementary who tested positive over the first week of school, according to Aldrich’s email obtained by the Mesabi Tribune. In Chisholm, he wrote, an entire second grade class was forced to quarantine after seven people tested positive for the coronavirus, including five kids, a paraprofessional and a teacher. One of the students went to the emergency room.
Hoffman-Saccoman read the statistics during the councilor’s meeting on Tuesday night, just hours after parents and their children protested the Hibbing High School mask mandate that went into effect that day.
Earlier that morning, Hibbing Fire Chief Erik Jankila sent an email to Hyduke and other city officials, providing a COVID-19 quarantine update: “People who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after contact with someone who has had COVID-19 unless they have symptoms,” he wrote in an email obtained by the Mesabi Tribune. “However, fully vaccinated people should consider getting tested 3-5 days after their exposure, even if they don’t have symptoms and recommend to wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until their test result is negative.”