ST PAUL, Minn. —
- Statewide mask mandate is effective early Saturday morning
- Masks will be required in public indoor settings, like stores and restaurants
- Willful violation could lead to a $100 fine for individuals
- State working to distribute 4 million disposable masks through chambers of commerce
Gov. Tim Walz has issued an executive order mandating mask use for indoor public spaces.
The mandate will take effect early Saturday morning, and requires Minnesotans to wear masks in public indoor gathering areas like stores and restaurants, as well as while using public transportation.
Exemptions are in place for people with medical or mental health conditions that make it "unreasonable for the individual to maintain a face covering."
Children under the age of five are also exempt from the order, though masks are still encouraged for children between the ages of two and five. The order states that "those who are under two years old should never wear a face covering due to the risk of suffocation."
The order also states that workers must also wear face coverings outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained.
A detailed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page has been posted on the Minnesota Department of Health website.
"I think here in Minnesota with this mask mandate, with the things we have done previously to this, I think it is very possible ... for us to start moving forward. If we can get a 90-95% compliance ... we can reduce the infection rates dramatically, which slows that spread and breaks that chain," Walz said. "This is the cheapest, most effective way for us to open up our businesses, for us to get our kids back in school, for us to keep our grandparents healthy, and for us to get back that life that we all miss so much."
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) says acceptable face coverings under the order can include paper or disposable masks, cloth masks, a bandanna, scarf, or neck gaiter, or a religious face covering. Any face covering should cover the nose and mouth completely while being comfortable to wear.
Masks or face coverings with ventilation or openings are not recommended because they could allow droplets to enter or exit the covering.
MDH commissioner Jan Malcolm noted 28 other states have implemented similar mask requirements thus far, in addition to a dozen Minnesota cities. Cities are allowed to establish stronger requirements than the state mandate.
"This is the quickest way to ending the COVID pandemic," Walz said.
The governor's office says the goal of the order is voluntary compliance, however individuals who "willfully violate" the order could be found guilty of a petty misdemeanor and receive a $100 fine. Business owners who willfully violate the order could face a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.
Under the order, businesses are responsible for requiring workers, customers and visitors to wear face coverings; however, the order says businesses cannot require customers to prove or explain any health exemptions. Businesses are asked to take steps to limit worker and customer interaction with those unable to wear face coverings, and businesses must provide accommodations for those who cannot wear a face covering, like curbside pickup.
If customers refuse to comply without an accepted exemption, MDH said "businesses should assess the situation and determine how best to proceed, using normal procedures for dealing with a difficult customer." However, MDH adds that businesses have an obligation to protect their workers from hazards, including COVID-19, and "must take steps to mitigate or eliminate the risks posed by a person who refuses to wear a face covering." However, MDH says workers and managers should "avoid direct enforcement in situations that would put themselves or others at risk of harm and instead consider engaging law enforcement."
The FAQ on the MDH website offers additional "best practices" advice for businesses.
The executive order also includes guidance on masks in school settings, however the governor did not discuss the state's official guidance on the upcoming school year. The Minnesota Department of Education said those details were expected to be revealed on July 27.
Along with the mandate, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and MDH will work to distribute masks to underserved communities and businesses; that includes distribution of four million disposable masks through chambers of commerce in every county across the state.
"We've got to wear masks to keep our economy open and to pave the way to open it even further," said DEED commissioner Steve Grove.
Health commissioner Malcolm noted the mask mandate does not mean people should stop following other pandemic guidance, like social distancing.
"A mask is not magic, a mask doesn't mean, if you're sick it's OK to go out," Malcolm said. "A mask doesn't mean you can gather in large numbers in close proximity for an extended period of time."
According to the order, the mask mandate will remain in place until the end of the state's peacetime emergency, or until canceled by the governor or other "proper authority" under state law.
Ahead of the governor's announcement, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka expressed his disdain for a "one-size-fits-all" approach to mandating masks across the state.
"Businesses and individuals are already requiring and wearing masks in most situations, so the mandate feels like a heavy-handed, broad approach that won’t work well for every situation," Gazelka said.
He went on to emphasize the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the state. "40 counties have no COVID deaths, and another 35 counties have less than 10 deaths. Meaning 86% of the state is either in a very safe environment or already taking appropriate measures to mitigate the spread of COVID."
Gov. Walz bluntly disagreed with Gazelka's statements on rural Minnesota. "He's wrong. He's wrong on the science," the governor said.
Walz also noted that even President Trump is now on board.
"President Trump is telling you to wear a mask," Walz said.
Gazelka says he hopes to see more of the state opened up if the governor requires masks. "I expect to see the dials and knobs moved forward so that people can work, kids can go to school, and businesses can operate more freely. Each business, school district, and church should be able to decide what works best for their specific needs. ‘One (size-fits-all) Minnesota’ is a terrible way to support more than 5 million individuals in our state."
RELATED: What science says about masks
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the recommendations around wearing masks have shifted. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Minnesota Department of Health recommend wearing masks in public and areas where social distancing is difficult.
However, leading infectious disease experts say not all masks are created equal when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19. The fabric used for the mask, numbers of layers it has and how the mask is being worn make a difference on the amount of particles it can block.
On Tuesday, Walz told reporters that he wanted Republican lawmakers to support a mask mandate and put it into place through the legislature instead of an executive order. Walz says they weren't willing to do it.
When asked about a regional approach to mask mandates, tailoring them to specific counties and areas instead of the entire state, Walz said there's a good argument to be made, but it's flawed. "We see it across the country, you tend to get a bleed over," he said. "Because, OK, so you don’t have one in St. Louis County? Well, everyone goes to St. Louis County from other places."
MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm agreed.
The Minnesota Hospital Association also called on the governor to order masks statewide last week.
In the past two weeks, as coronavirus cases spiked across multiple states, major retailers began to announce their own face mask policies.
Meanwhile, school districts are still waiting to find out their fate for the upcoming school year. The state has said they'll recommend either in-person learning, distance learning, or a hybrid of the two the week of July 27.
A recent University of Minnesota survey found more than half of the 13,000 educators polled "worried a great deal" about continuing distance learning. Nearly 5,8000 said the same about coming back to school and getting sick.
Across the country, the question over whether or not students and staff should wear masks in schools is increasingly divisive.
In Minnesota, parents and students protested in front of the Minnesota State Capitol earlier this month, calling on the governor to reopen schools with minimal restrictions.
The rally came after a survey by the Minnesota Department of Education revealed that a majority of parents surveyed are comfortable with sending their kids back to a classroom. Just over half reported a bad experience with distance learning in the spring.