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As fight against pandemic continues, lawmakers consider making mask mandate state law

A sign noting mask usage is required inside the State Office Building. A bill heard Tuesday would make Gov. Walz's executive order requiring face coverings in all indoor public settings law in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Paul Battaglia
A sign noting mask usage is required inside the State Office Building. A bill heard Tuesday would make Gov. Walz's executive order requiring face coverings in all indoor public settings law in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Paul Battaglia

A House committee on Tuesday heard a proposal to make wearing face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic the law in Minnesota.

Sponsored by Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-Mpls), HF604 would codify the provisions of an executive order issued by Gov. Tim Walz last July that require face coverings in all indoor public settings to slow the spread of the virus.

The House Health Finance and Policy Committee held the bill over, as amended, Tuesday for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill. The companion, SF739, is sponsored by Sen. Melissa Wiklund (DFL-Bloomington) and awaits action by the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee.

Jordan said members who want a voice in the state’s response to the pandemic should support the bill.

“For months, I’ve heard members plead to be part of the state’s pandemic response … HF604 is a bill to serve as part of the foundation for that work that I’ve heard so many of you demand to be a part of,” she said, adding that she wants to work with her colleagues to continue to improve the legislation.

So-called “mask mandates” have been one of the pandemic’s most divisive issues around the country, with opponents arguing they infringe on personal liberties despite widespread scientific agreement they work to slow transmission of the virus.

The bill would require people to wear face coverings when:

  • inside a business or in a public setting;
  • waiting outside to enter a business or public setting;
  • riding on public transportation, and when using some other forms of transportation;
  • outdoors and it’s not possible to be socially distant from others who are not members of the same household; and
  • in common areas of a multiunit dwelling.

Exemptions to the mandate would include those who have a condition or disability “that makes it unreasonable” to wear a face covering, are age 5 or younger, and people who work in a place where it would create a hazard.

The bill also includes a list of circumstances where temporary mask removal would be allowed and it permits businesses and local governments to adopt more restrictive policies to protect public health.

Individuals who willfully violate the mandate could receive a $100 fine, while businesses that violate or threaten to violate the requirements would be subject to a penalty of up to $25,000 per occurrence.

House Health Finance and Policy Committee 02/09/21

The requirement would remain in effect until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues a guidance for prevention of COVID-19 spread that does not include a recommendation that face coverings be worn or a determination by the Health Department that face coverings are no longer necessary.

In a presentation to the committee, Daniel Huff, Health Department assistant commissioner, told members that, since the governor’s executive order, the number of Minnesotans using face coverings rose by 39% and usage was at 77% as of January 2021.

“What we know is my mask helps protect you, it also helps protect me, and that if you and I are both wearing a mask when we’re near each other we are significantly reducing the spread of the disease,” Huff said. “The more people that wear a mask the greater the benefit.”

Four testifiers spoke in opposition to the bill, including Twila Brase, president of the Citizens Council for Health Freedom, who questioned whether masks work. She said that after the governor’s executive order was imposed, COVID-19 cases and deaths rose for the next five months and have continued to go up and down since.

“From our perspective, the mask mandate has been a social experiment infringing upon the rights of individuals to speak and breathe freely,” Brase said. “… It’s time to end this unnecessary and unproven mandate, not to codify it.”

But Dr. Beth Thielen, an infectious disease physician with M Health and one of several health care professionals to testify in support of the bill, said there is no question among health care providers in hospitals that masks work. She said masks have been used for years to prevent infections such as influenza, tuberculosis, measles and any number of other diseases.

“These are a widely accepted prevention strategy for preventing respiratory transmission,” Thielen said.

Two amendments offered by Republicans were defeated by the same 11-8 margin, with votes cast along party lines. One would have exempted youth sports from the mask requirement, while the other would have given the mandate a firm end date.

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