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Rochester council faces pushes from both sides of mask debate as COVID numbers increase

Mayor has order ready for mask requirement, but needs council support to enact it for more than three days.

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ROCHESTER — City officials are facing pressure from both sides of the masking debate as local COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

“It’s been a hotly contested discussion in my inbox for probably the last three weeks,” said Rochester City Council member Nick Campion. “I get emails from both sides of the issue, and there is a lot going on.”

Campion, along with council member Patrick Keane, have been identified by one local group as the council members to “flip” for the city to adopt a universal masking policy. Both voted to rescind a short-lived citywide mask requirement in August.

“As the center for health in Minnesota and the nation, we need a universal masking policy in Rochester to protect our neighbors and the patients who visit our city, and to keep schools and businesses open,” Jack Dudley, the southern Minnesota organizer for Isaiah, wrote in an email from the statewide, nonpartisan coalition of faith communities.

Keane said he was aware of the push and has seen the results, along with efforts from people opposed to any mask requirements.

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City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage said recent messages to the council have included inflammatory language suggesting a new mask mandate would be met with resistance.

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Keane said the added input has limited impact.

“I view high community engagement as a sign of community interest,” he said. “That means I need to more fully understand issues and options, but I can’t think of an issue where I changed my position based on mail volume or caller disagreement.”

St. Paul and Minneapolis reinstated mask mandates last week, but surrounding communities have not taken the same steps.

Duluth's City Council voted against a mandate Monday, but Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said she’s not planning to seek such a vote until she knows she has enough council support.

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Rochester Mayor Kim Norton speaks during a meeting at the city-county Government Center in Rochester Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, to discuss a Declaration of Emergency issued by Norton. The Declaration of Local Emergency, which was issued on Tuesday morning, requires individuals to wear masks in all indoor settings within the city of Rochester where medically vulnerable individuals or children under the age of 12 are expected to be present. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Her August emergency order was rescinded by the City Council on a 5-2 vote, and Norton said she has no desire to see a repeated outcome.

"It's just too darn confusing to put it in place and have them rescind it two days later," she said. "That's confusing for businesses, and they won't take it seriously. It's like crying wolf, and I don't want to keep doing that."

The continued discussion comes as the city’s work with Mayo Clinic shows a potential increase in confirmed COVID cases on the horizon.

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Wastewater testing at the end of December revealed a sharp increase in ribonucleic acid related to coronavirus. The number rose from 50 to 100 RNA copies per milliliter to approximately 225 within the month.

Weekly wastewater testing
The red line shows the level of COVID RNA found in Rochester wastewater, while the blue bars depict the number of confirmed COVID cases reported.
City of Rochester

It’s the highest recording since testing started in 2020.

Wendy Turri, Rochester’s public works director, has said the RNA increases in the local wastewater typically foreshadow increases in confirmed cases by two weeks, since COVID can be in a person’s system before symptoms prompt testing.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports Olmsted County had 1,351 new confirmed cases in the seven-day period ending Monday, which more than doubled the previous week.

The CDC also reported a nearly 30% positivity rate earlier this week for those being tested for COVID in the county, which was a pandemic high.

Council members, whether they support a mask requirement or not, continue to point to their August recommendation to wear masks in public indoor spaces, including businesses.

“The key message from the city and our partners is that the most effective tools to do so remain getting vaccinated and boosted when eligible, testing, and responding accordingly to a positive test along with other mitigation strategies like masking and social distancing,” said Council President Brooke Carlson, who was one of two council members supporting some sort of continued mask requirement in August. “While we may not reach consensus on upholding an emergency declaration requiring masks, I strongly encourage all residents to follow this guidance including the latest recommendations for which masks are the most effective.”

Campion said he believes the effectiveness of masks has been proven, but the debate about requiring them is more complex.

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“There’s a lot of facets to this, and certainly enforcement is a significant one,” he said, noting Minneapolis and St. Paul issue licenses to more commercial businesses than Rochester, which provides advantages in enforcement efforts.

In addition to looking at the current situation, council members have said they are paying attention to potential long-term impacts of COVID as the pandemic continues, since it appears the virus will remain active for an unknown period.

“The city continues to monitor pandemic impacts with an eye toward possible actions,” Keane said, pointing out quarantine rules are already straining public services and private businesses.

While emergency declarations would be needed to take action, he said continued discussions don’t point to council action at this point.

Norton said she remains ready to act on a mask requirement, if the council wishes, but predicted change among members will hinge on local data, rather than continued pressure from both sides of the mask issue.

“I think they are more likely to make their decision based on data — the high percent positivity, the worker shortage that is affecting businesses — our locals and even the post office — caused by Omicron, and the concern for overwhelmed hospitals,” she said.



ROCHESTER MASKING TIMELINE

  • March 12, 2020 -- First confirmed COVID-19 case reported in Olmsted County..
  • March 20, 2020 -- Rochester Mayor Kim Norton declares a city emergency.
  • March 23, 2020 -- The Rochester City Council affirms the city emergency in a 6-1 vote, with council member Shaun Palmer opposed.
  • March 28, 2020 -- Statewide stay-at-home order starts.
  • June 27, 2020 -- Norton amends city declaration to require the use of face coverings inside city-controlled buildings.
  • July 8, 2020 -- A planned two-month Rochester mask mandate starts after a 6-1 council vote, with then-Council President Randy Staver opposing the order.
  • July 22, 2020 -- Walz signs a statewide mask mandate, which ends the city order.
  • July 1, 2021 -- Minnesota’s COVID-19 emergency order ends.
  • Aug. 17, 2021 -- Norton declares a city emergency, enacting a limited mask requirement for indoor public spaces.
  • Aug. 19, 2021 -- The Rochester City Council votes 5-2 to rescind the emergency order.


https://infogram.com/covid-19-se-mn-and-state-cases-1hdw2jrvyyqd6l0?live

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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