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Outside Rochester, masks are a choice, not a requirement

Despite the same level of COVID infections rates – substantial – as Rochester, the rest of Southeast Minnesota letting people decide on their own about masks.

Mask Mandates
A sign on the door of a Stewartville business urges people to wear a protective mask Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

STEWARTVILLE — While the mask mandate is in place for all public places in Rochester, across Southeast Minnesota the rule is to let individuals and businesses decide whether or not to free the face.

"I’ve heard a lot of people say they carry (a mask) with them or in their vehicle in case they need them," said Stewartville City Administrator Bill Schimmel. "I think some of our council members might get asked, but they seem pretty determined on letting some of the people make their own decision."

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Bill Schimmel

On Sunday, the Rochester City Council approved a city-wide mask mandate for all indoor public venues through Feb. 7. The mandate applies to everyone, regardless of their vaccination status.

In the city of Stewartville — and pretty much across Southeast Minnesota outside Rochester — the decision to require masks is made either by individual businesses or, more often, individual citizens who are out and about.

For example, the main places requiring masks in Stewartville are the Olmsted Medical Clinic branch and, likely, the dentist office, Schimmel said.

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Other than that, he hasn't heard of any businesses requiring patrons to wear masks.

Elizabeth Howard, the city administrator in Pine Island said the same is true there. Businesses have the right to require customers wear masks, but she can't think of an example there.

That's true in City Hall as well, where you're as likely to be greeted by a city employee who is wearing a mask as not.

One big change, Howard said, is that residents conduct their business with the city — making utility payments or asking questions about city rules or events — more and more online or by using a drop box rather than via face-to-face contact.

"We think people understand that their city business can be taken care of by phone or email," Howard said. "So, we’ve had a dramatic decrease in foot traffic."

Howard said while the specific COVID transmission rates in Pine Island differ from those in Rochester, both cities are listed in the "substantial transmission" category.

Each week, she said, she's updated by both Goodhue and Olmsted counties on the latest COVID figures, but so far the city council has shown no interest in following Rochester's example and mandating masks in public buildings.

Outside of Rochester, few places enforce any public mandates. One such place is the city of Red Wing, which mandates masks for anyone entering city buildings such as City Hall.

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But Red Wing is the exception, not the rule.

In Byron, the answer toward mask mandates is typical of most cities and counties in the region.

"We follow the CDC guidelines," said City Administrator Mary Blair-Hoeft. "I haven’t had anyone on the council give me a reason to think they might want to enforce a mask mandate."

Not that Byron doesn't recommend wearing a mask at City Hall, and encourage employees to wear masks when less than 6 feet from another individual or moving around the office. That request comes no matter a person's vaccination status.

But businesses around town are able to make and enforce their own masking rules.

Tammy Fiedler, public health director in Wabasha County, said despite the "substantial transmission" rate across the county, the county board has shown no desire to mandate masks.

Her office keeps each city aware of the latest numbers reported to the Minnesota Department of Health, relating case loads and the number of cases in each age group every Friday to the cities in the county.

Within the county government, Fiedler said, the administration keeps track of the number of cases and close contact instances for its own employees.

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Fiedler said there are buildings that do mandate mask usage, but they are the places that have long done so, such as health care facilities or any place with congregate care such as nursing homes or the county jail.

But with COVID-19 numbers on the rise, Wabasha County is happy to take advantage of online meeting options both for staff and for meetings with clients.

"We had a period of time, when numbers were down, where we could meet with clients without masks," she said.

The situation is similar in Dodge County, said Kaiti Smith with Dodge County Public Health. The county is experiencing a high case volume, but right now, no one seems to be in a rush to mandate mask usage.

"We’re experiencing that surge. We’re considered to be in high transmission," Smith said. "But when it comes to a mandate, not that I’ve been briefed on or made aware of."

Brian Todd is the news editor at the Post Bulletin. When not at work, he spends time with his family, roots for the Houston Astros and watches his miniature dachshund sleep, which is why that dog is more bratwurst than hotdog. Readers can reach Brian at 507-285-7715 or btodd@postbulletin.com.
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