Questions remain for businesses as mask mandate ramps up
Three-week requirement seeks to cover anticipated community surge of the COVID-19 virus.
ROCHESTER – Questions were more common than opinions as businesses contacted the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce on Monday to discuss the citywide mask mandate implemented during the weekend.
“The response we’ve been receiving at this time is really seeking some clarification here and there, not so much negative or positive either way,” Chamber President Ryan Parsons said on Monday.
He said the chamber helped businesses work through past COVID-related requirements and will continue to do so with the implementation of a three-week masking requirement.
He said most of the calls Monday morning were inquiries about potential enforcement actions and how businesses could obtain signs or masks, which have been provided through city- and chamber-led efforts in the past.
City officials have noted violating the mandate is not a criminal offense, but businesses could face administrative action related to any city licenses, if they don’t work to comply.
Rochester City Council member Shaun Palmer pointed out the city is not sending people out to look for violations.
The city, however, is planning to provide needed materials to support the order, making downloadable signs available to owners and providing the chamber with masks to distribute to businesses.
Signs regarding the mask requirement are available in an English version and a multi-lingual version , and a limited number of masks for businesses and organizations are available by contacting the chamber staff at Chamber@RochesterMNChamber.com.
Taco Jed owner Steve Dunn said the mask expense is likely to have the biggest impact on his business, since he plans to have them available for customers who show up without one.
“We are just trying to keep everyone safe,” he said, adding that his staff had already been required to wear masks while working.
The restaurant has seen two closures due to COVID cases that limited worker availability, and Dunn said it’s important to limit the spread of the virus to ensure businesses can continue to operate.
“I know people are tired of it,” he said.
Joe Powers, owner of Power Ventures, said the mandate already appears to be hampering business, with a 20% decline in activity during the first day of the mandate Sunday.
"The great thing is they put an end date on it," he said of the planned Feb. 7 expiration of the order.
He said staff at his restaurants and others have already been wearing masks for months, so the biggest change will be for customers, who will only need to wear masks when going to and from their tables.
"Compared to what we've been through, this is mild," he said.
Still, he said he anticipates his staff will face pushback from some customers who don't want to wear a mask.
Council member Mark Bransford, the only council member to oppose the mandate, raised similar concerns about potential confrontations.
“I’ve talked to a number of business owners that have witnessed this,” he said. “I know that there have been altercations in the public before, but now with a fractured, angry and tired divided population, I absolutely worry that this could continue.”
Other council members and Mayor Kim Norton said they remain hopeful that the mandate will help reduce the spread of the virus, so the the order can be lifted before Feb. 7.
“No one wants to do this,” Norton said. “No one does it out of joy. We do it with concern for our community, the residents who live here, the visitors who come for health care, our businesses, which are struggling right now because people are fearful to get out.”
Council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick cited Mayo Clinic projections of a possible peak in local COVID-19 cases on Jan. 24 or Jan. 25, when forecasts estimate approximately 875 daily cases in Olmsted County.
The current average number of daily cases in the county is 630, according to the Mayo Clinic’s COVID website.
Dr. Amy Williams, Mayo Clinic’s executive dean for practice, said the clinic appreciates the city’s effort to address the anticipated increase in cases by requiring masks be worn in indoor public spaces.
“The omicron variant and resulting surge in COVID-19 cases is challenging our health care system, schools, businesses and community,” she said in a statement issued Saturday.
While several council members cited the potential for ending the mask requirement early, the end date was switched from Feb. 6 to Feb. 7 because of the uncertainty of how long the county will have increasing case numbers.
“Feb. 7 is a council meeting day in case any further discussion or changes to emergency declaration need to be discussed,” Council President Brooke Carlson said. “We aren't expecting any based on what the trend data is showing us, but it's just cleaner that way.”