Mayor Norton brings back Rochester mask requirement
Mayor signs emergency measure mandating face coverings when children younger than 12 are present.
Masks must be worn in Rochester businesses and other indoor public spaces when children or medically vulnerable people are present.
The requirement started at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday when Mayor Kim Norton signed the document, and, without further action, lasts until 10:15 a.m. Friday.
RELATED: Rochester faces limited mask mandate
Under state statute, a citywide emergency declaration requires action by the city council to extend it beyond three days.
The Rochester City Council is holding an emergency meeting at 3:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss options related to the declaration.
“If circumstances change drastically, if we have a big drop or they find better language they are comfortable with, I’m more than happy to find language they would support,” Norton said Tuesday morning.
During Monday’s council meeting, council members suggested the declaration might need new language to be approved.
“I see the vagueness of ‘any place where kids are going to be’ being pretty difficult to regulate,” said council member Nick Campion.
Council member Shaun Palmer also raised concerns about requiring masks when medically vulnerable people are present, since the original version didn’t define that status.
“We all could be considered (in that category),” he said. “I don’t know who is expected to come into a bar or a restaurant that might have a condition, and I don’t know what it is.”
Norton updated the declaration Tuesday to include the CDC definition of "medically vulnerable," which includes people with cancer, chronic diseases, heart conditions, and other health issues.
“Council members a week ago said they wanted it to be narrow,” she said. “I’ve done my best, working with the city attorney, to make it narrow, but I know that narrow also means it’s not just ‘everybody wears a mask.’ ”
She said the narrow focus offers some businesses flexibility.
“It does allow gyms for adults, bars, and that sort of thing to not mask because adults are either vaccinated or can make that choice, but children don’t have that choice,” she said.
As of Sunday, 82.2% of eligible Olmsted County residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, with 78.1% being considered fully vaccinated.
That leaves 65.1% of the population fully vaccinated when all residents — including children younger than 12 — are counted.
Norton said she’s hoping people will acknowledge that the youngest residents remain at risk.
“I would ask the community to err on the side of safety,” she said. “A child could be in the store or might be in right after you pass through an aisle. It doesn’t hurt to wear a mask, even if a child isn’t present.”
The new mandate comes as Olmsted County is seeing increasing spread of the COVID-19 virus, despite having the state’s highest reported vaccination rate for residents 16 and older.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the county saw 224 new confirmed COVID cases, a 28.7% increase, during the seven-day period that ended Sunday. It comes with a 6% positivity rate for COVID tests.
Additionally, local wastewater tests are revealing an increase in the ribonucleic acid specific to the coronavirus, according to Rochester Public Works Director Wendy Turri.
The RNA tests to determine the prevalence of the virus locally dropped to less than 5 copies per milliliter during the summer, after a November high in the 40s. Last week, results were in the teens, Turri said.
Working with Mayo Clinic, University of Minnesota Rochester and Olmsted County Public Health, she said city staff recently increased testing to three or four times a week to get a better handle on trends.
Public Health Director Graham Briggs said trend data is important to make future decisions, since daily numbers often fluctuate.
“It’s very hard to theorize what will be coming,” he said of using the daily results.
Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist Elie Berbari said last week local circumstances would be more bleak without the county’s high vaccination rate.
“The vaccine is doing its job in preventing people from getting sick or being hospitalized, or requiring an intensive care unit,” he said.
At the same time, he noted that vaccine effectiveness is waning in some cases, sparking discussion of booster shots earlier than expected.
Briggs told county commissioners Tuesday that his staff is starting to discuss options related to providing booster shots.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a third dose coming for everyone at some point,” he said, noting that the county could administer up to 50,000 shots a week if doses are available, or the doses could be provided in doctor's offices or pharmacies.
Berbari said the more contagious delta variant, along with a vibrant local economy, means COVID isn’t likely to disappear in the near future, as some had hoped.
“With the delta variant, it’s clear this is something we are going to have to learn to live with,” he said.
Briggs said he expects COVID-19 will become something that recurs in a milder form in the future.
“It’s likely to become an endemic cold virus 10 years from now for our kids, grandkids,” he said.
But the virus hasn’t reached that stage yet, he warned, noting that it remains potentially deadly for people who haven’t been vaccinated.
“There is going to be risk there until we develop immunity as a community, across the community,” he said, offering encouragement for people to seek vaccinations and continue wearing masks.