By the end of a special Edina City Council meeting June 29, Mayor Jim Hovland was planning to sign a proclamation requiring people to wear face coverings indoors where 6-foot social distancing can't be practiced.

As part of an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the mayoral proclamation would make Edina the first Minnesota city outside Minneapolis and St. Paul to enact such a mask mandate for spaces of public accommodation. Edina City Attorney Roger Knutson said he would draw up a document regarding the proclamation for the mayor's review.

By Hovland's estimation, the proclamation had the support of at least three council members, enough for a majority even though their blessing wasn't required for the mandate.

“We've had many folks in our community asking about this issue, concerned about it from a public health standpoint, and frankly, on both sides of the issue,” Hovland said.

After the special meeting was announced June 26, council members' inboxes were dinging relentlessly. The consensus on the council was that the commenters favored a mask mandate by about a two to one ratio.

“I think I was up until 1 in the morning reading emails, and they kept pouring in all night long,” Hovland said of the previous morning.

“It struck me how many health care professionals sent us emails asking us to impose this requirement,” Councilmember Mike Fischer said, one of the three members of the council, including the mayor, who spoke clearly in favor of the policy.

Fischer likened the mask requirement to banning smoking from bars and restaurants, saying the measure was to protect the people who worked in those buildings and didn't have a choice regarding the environmental harms they faced.

Much still to learn

While Hovland made clear his intention to sign the mask proclamation, he admitted that data on masks' effectiveness against the spread of COVID-19 isn't conclusive, even if public health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend mask usage.

The mayor noted that the morning of the special meeting, he spoke with Mike Osterholm, former state epidemiologist for Minnesota and current director for infectious disease research and policy at the University of Minnesota. “He cautions that a lot of the studies are not good,” Hovland said, noting that Osterholm still recommends mask usage.

Due out in three weeks, a study led by Osterholm should provide a better idea regarding the effectiveness of various types of face coverings, Hovland reported. If that study shows masks to be ineffective, then “what have we lost in the process?” he said, adding he would want to revisit the mandate if that were the case.

Fischer applied the “what if I'm wrong?” test to the question. “If masks don't do anything, then the worst thing that happens is we all look silly together for a few months until there is a vaccine or there's some other solution,” he said. “If masks do make a difference, there will be lives saved.”

One common argument among members of the public opposing a mask mandate was that they should be allowed to decide their own level of protection, Councilmember Mary Brindle noted. But public health authorities say the point of a mask is to protect others, not necessarily the one wearing the mask, Brindle and other council members mentioned.

“How do we get to the point where people understand that they are protecting not just themselves, but the other individual,” Brindle said, suggesting that the answer might be education. She left the meeting before firmly establishing her stance on a mask policy for Edina.

Councilmember Kevin Staunton, who came out in favor of the mandate, compared a mask requirement to other restrictions of recent months – stay at home orders and curfews – that he saw as more stringent than a mask requirement.

“If you're narrowly talking about having people wear face coverings in stores when there's not an ability to social distance, that's a pretty minor restriction,” Staunton said.

Fischer, likewise, saw the inconvenience as relatively minimal. “The individual sacrifice in this case amounts to putting on a mask for 10 minutes when you're ordering your iced mocha latte,” he said.

To Fischer, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of a respiratory disease amounts to common sense. “I don't think there's anything disputing in anything I've read that having a mask on your face will reduce the amount of stuff coming out of your nose and mouth and into the environment around you,” he said.

Dissenting opinions

Two participants in the special Edina meeting came out against a mask mandate. City Manager Scott Neal said he does not doubt the value of wearing a mask, but added, “I am concerned that adoption of such a policy takes us out of step with the governor's office, the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health, all of whom we've followed pretty faithfully during the pandemic process.”

Councilmember Ron Anderson, the other meeting participant to clearly oppose the mask requirement, said he would be more comfortable if such an order came from another level of government. “I would far prefer that to come from the governor's office or even Hennepin County, especially if, in fact, it's determined as an element that should be in place to protect public health,” Anderson said.

He stated he typically wears a mask in indoor public spaces, but would rather the city encourage mask use instead of mandating it, framing it “from a mutual respect position as much as a health position.”

Anderson feared the policy could have an adverse effect on Edina businesses whose customers could opt to take their money to another city.

Enforcement is another problem he foresees. “I think that this would be almost impossible to enforce on a very real basis,” Anderson said.

Hovland, however, doesn't anticipate the policy being enforced either. “I'm not so concerned about that,” he said. “I don't think we're going to enforce it, and I don't want people to use that as an excuse to not wear one, because I think merchants then will be saying you've got to have one on.”

Hovland argued that the mandate will give businesses the extra authority to demand that customers wear masks.

After this article was originally posted, a sentence about the face mask mandate as it would pertain to public facilities was removed for clarity. 

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