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DULUTH – Residents and visitors must wear masks in public indoor places after the City Council became the latest in Minnesota to require face coverings in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

On Monday evening, Duluth council members voted unanimously in favor of the measure, which took effect immediately. The mandate will remain in effect until Gov. Tim Walz ends his local emergency declaration.

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“I think it’s always our duty to put public safety and health as our top priority,” Council Member Arik Forsman said. “And that’s what this ordinance is about, quite frankly. But it’s also about protecting our economy.”

A handful of other Minnesota cities, from Minneapolis to Winona, have passed similar measures. Minnetonka approved the change on Monday night.

Duluth’s mandate comes as Walz mulls a statewide mask requirement, similar to what more than 20 other states have already implemented.

Face masks have become the subject of intense political debate across the state and country as Democrats and Republicans argue how to best respond to the pandemic.

Earlier Monday, state health officials urged businesses to comply with COVID-19 preventive measures to avoid the resurgence of infections that have forced other states to once again close bars, restaurants and churches.

“If you look around this country right now, we see what happens when no one makes these kinds of decisions,” Council Member Joel Sipress said. “Part of the reason we’re in the mess that we’re in right now is too many people who have these positions of responsibility have not been willing to make these decisions.”

Cases reported in St. Louis County have been increasing over the last four weeks, said Amy Westbrook, the county’s public health director. Young adults, between the ages of 20 and 29, have been the most affected age group. On Monday, the county had 238 confirmed cases.

Children younger than age 10 will not have to wear masks in Duluth, nor will those unable to wear face coverings for medical reasons. Masks are not required while customers are sitting and dining at a restaurant, though they must be worn by patrons walking through the premises.

People will be required to cover their mouths and noses before entering any indoor space open to the public, including stores, city buses, places of worship, educational institutions, recreational facilities and apartment lobbies.

Those who do not comply with the mandate could be fined $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $1,000 for all subsequent offenses. Violators could also face misdemeanor prosecution.

A survey of more than 150 local businesses conducted by Duluth’s Greater Downtown Council showed 73% of respondents favored the ordinance. Almost two-thirds of those businesses said they already asked customers to wear masks on their premises.

Council members received hundreds of e-mails in the days leading up to Monday’s meeting from residents on both sides of the issue. Sipress said in his 6½ years on the council, the vote was “one of the ones that weighed on me most heavily.”

“What we’re going through right now, with this public health crisis and the economic crisis that it’s sparked, may be the most serious situation I’ve experienced in my lifetime,” he said. “And it’s not going to end any time soon. So we need to think about how we are going to prepare and work together to persevere through this.”

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478