Bloomington is requiring visitors to its buildings to wear face masks in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the Bloomington City Council will consider mandating a citywide policy for indoor public spaces.

The council’s deliberation of a citywide policy is scheduled for its Monday, July 27 meeting, and is in response to residents asking city officials to consider the policy, according to Councilmember Jenna Carter. “If there are simple, easy, inexpensive and minimally invasive things that we could be doing as a council and as a community, it seems to make sense,” she said.

The council’s schedule will not allow it to consider an ordinance requiring the practice prior to the July 27 meeting, and the council was unwilling to pursue a policy through an emergency declaration.

The policy requiring masks be worn inside city buildings, however, was announced last week by Mayor Tim Busse, following the council meeting. The policy was effective beginning July 13. Although some city buildings are open to the public, such as Bloomington Civic Plaza, they are providing limited in-person services.

The council’s public hearing regarding a citywide policy may be irrelevant if a statewide policy is enacted prior to the meeting. Absent a statewide policy, Bloomington will consider joining Edina and other cities that have already enacted a mask policy.

The benefit of wearing a mask is tough to quantify at this point, according to Nick Kelley, the city’s assistant public health administrator. Masks are intended to minimize the ability of spreading COVID-19 to others, but it remains important for people to observe social distancing in public setting, even with masks. And if wearing a cloth mask instills a sense of protection and encourages risky behaviors, people can still become infected, he explained to the council.

Enacting a law requiring masks, but not following through with an enforcement effort, may not be any more effective than a strong recommendation, he noted.

Wearing masks in public should be part of a layered approach to stopping the spread of the disease, Kelley said. And policies requiring the use of a mask should address the burden of access for those who cannot afford a mask or do not otherwise have access to one in a public setting, he added.

Council members noted that they have been fielding questions about a citywide policy as debates about the benefits continue. “There is some ambiguity there,” Councilmember Nathan Coulter said. “I don’t know that that ambiguity is going to be resolved any time soon,” he added. Conversely, the council should consider the topic if the governor is not going to issue an executive order, he explained. “I don’t think we can wait on this.”

The city’s local emergency, which allowed the mayor and council to forgo protocols tied to pandemic response, expired at the end of June when the council opted not to extend it. A new local emergency could have been declared in order to institute a citywide mask policy, City Manager Jamie Verbrugge said, but the council opted not to do so.

Councilmember Dwayne Lowman questioned if waiting until July 27 to make a decision was in the city’s best interest, saying it is “a long time to wait for that public comment period.” Having received email suggesting that a citywide policy is an urgent situation, he asked if the council’s decision should happen sooner.

Councilmember Shawn Nelson said that he respected the urgency to decide, but preferred to hear from business owners about the impact of a citywide policy prior to making a decision. He suggested that a city requirement may remove conflict for business owners who want to require the use of masks, sans a citywide or state requirement. He added that the decision is difficult, as it also raises a question about the right level of governance by the city.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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