The Edina City Council has opted not to impose a city-wide mask mandate in response to the latest COVID-19 surge, but did approved a measure aimed at helping the public access the resources necessary to combat the virus.

The council gathered for a special meeting Jan. 7 to discuss the city’s response to the omicron variant, which has rocketed the COVID-19 positivity rate to new heights.

Edina has now reached a seven-day case rate of 1,000 per 100,000 people, a number that is “unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Blair Harrison, assistant public health commissioner for Bloomington Public Health, told the council.

“We have alarm bells going off,” she added later. “We’re incredibly concerned.”

While the omicron variant is thought to cause less severe disease than previous iterations, it is more transmissible and has become the dominant strain in Minnesota, Harrison said. Although omicron appears to cause less severe infection, the “sheer numbers will cause “a higher number of hospitalizations, ICU stays and death than we’ve seen in the past,” she warned.

As of the morning of Jan. 7, there was one ICU bed available in the Twin Cities, Harrison noted. The scarcity of health care resources means that public health experts are telling the public to exercise extra caution in their daily lives – be careful not to slip on ice, buckle children into their car seats, get a flu shot – in order avoid needing care in an already-strained system, Harrison noted.

The state of the pandemic was concerning enough for the City Council to vote unanimously Jan. 7 to return public meetings to a virtual format, effective immediately.

The council, however, did not believe the broader action of establishing a mask mandate would be worthwhile. Had the measure been successful, Edina would have joined Minneapolis and St. Paul in re-establishing such a mandate.

“People that aren’t wearing a mask now aren’t going to wear a mask just because we passed something this afternoon,” Mayor Jim Hovland said.

The council did impose a city-wide mask mandate at the onset of the pandemic, but “it just feels different now, even though we have high rates of omicron infection,” Hovland said, noting the availability of vaccines and increased knowledge about how the virus spreads.

While there will be no mask mandate, the council unanimously passed a resolution directing city staff to develop strategies for using federal funds to provide enhanced access to rapid testing, booster shots, high-quality masks like the N-95 or KN-95 varieties, and flu shots.

“As opposed to commanding, I’d much rather deal with this by saying, ‘Lets’ set up these mechanisms,’” Hovland said.

The sole councilmember to speak in favor of a mask mandate was Kevin Staunton. “I’m not interested in telling people what to do, but I think it’s necessary in order to get people’s attention that this is a big deal and we have to ramp up here.”

But amongst the councilmembers, one popular argument against a mandate was difficulty in enforcement. “The people that deal with the public are really tired of being yelled at,” Councilmember Carolyn Jackson said.

Citing the city’s previous mask mandate, Staunton pushed back against claims that the lack of enforceability means mandates are ineffective.

“We worried a lot about enforcement, and then we made the mandate order and everybody complied. You went in the grocery store the next week and look, everybody was wearing a mask,” he recounted.

After making an unsuccessful motion to approve a city-wide mask mandate, Staunton proposed a mask requirement that would be limited to city-owned facilities, where staff members are required to mask up but patrons are not. That motion also failed to gain traction.

“I consider that to be highly problematic,” City Manager Scott Neal said of mask mandates for city facilities.

When such a mandate was in place earlier at facilities such as Braemar Arena, “it was very difficult to achieve meaningful levels of voluntary compliance,” and it was often up to the teenage staff to enforce the rules, Neal said. The difficulty in enforcement, he added, is “not unlike some of the issues that private businesses are facing.”

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