ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he is mandating Minnesotans wear face masks to help stem the spread of the coronavirus following a recent rise in cases statewide.
At a news conference that included state officials, business owners and infectious disease experts, the Democratic governor cited support from businesses and health care experts, along with a recent rise in the positive infection rate, for the mandate. Walz said a 90% to 95% compliance rate on the mask order can dramatically reduce the infection rate and slow the spread of the virus statewide.
"This is the way — the cheapest and 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," Walz said.
The executive order — which goes into effect on Saturday — requires masks be worn in businesses, public buildings and other indoor spaces where people gather, but allows room for cities to adopt tougher requirements. Children 5 and under are exempt from the order, along with individuals with a medical condition, a mental health condition or disability.
Businesses must post signs to inform customers of the mask requirement and make sure they comply. Violations of the mandate are a petty misdemeanor that comes with a fine of up to $100 for individuals, and a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in jail for businesses.
Hannah Peura, owner of Bemidji gift shop Compass Rose, said it wasn't until last month when COVID-19 cases in community began to rise that she began to consider mandating masks in her store. The mandate allows for Peura's business to remain open while protecting customers and employees from the virus, she said.
"I appreciate the support from the governor that helps protect small businesses like mine throughout the state," Peura said. "In a way, it helps level the playing field for businesses and it really takes the pressure off of business owners like myself to not have to make that difficult decision."
Minnesota joins 29 other states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico in mandating masks. Cities within the state including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester have already instituted mask mandates of some form prior to Walz's order.
In a statement Wednesday, GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka criticized the mandate as a "heavy-handed, broad approach that won't work well for every situation," citing lower numbers of deaths and intensive care patients outside of the metro area. Gazelka said a mask mandate should be accompanied by the reopening of schools and allowing businesses to operate more freely.
"Each business, school district, and church should be able to decide what works best for their specific needs," he said in the statement. "'One (size-fits-all) Minnesota' is a terrible way to support more than 5 million individuals in our state."
Walz called Republican pushback on the mandate "wrong on the science" and said GOP leadership had asked him six weeks ago to make decisions like the governors of Florida, Texas and Arizona — three states that are now experiencing some of the largest spikes in cases nationwide in recent weeks.
"At some point in time, we need to recognize had I chosen to listen to that advice rather than the advice of the medical experts, we would be in a much different situation," Walz told reporters.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported 507 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and four new deaths. Since the pandemic began in March, Minnesota has reported 47,961 total cases and 1,552 deaths. Though Minnesota has seen a steady increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, the upward trend is not as steep as in other hotspots around the country.