State health officials appealed for more wearing of masks and social distancing Monday after receiving more than 80 complaints of noncompliance last weekend and a few reports of defiance of Minnesota’s new mask mandate.
While surveys show broad support for wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Minnesotans need to comply as much as possible to prevent the exponential rise in cases happening in other states.
“We certainly don’t want Minnesota to experience the same catastrophic results of that very, very fast growth that we have seen in Florida, Texas and other states,” she said. “We as citizens have a great deal of influence over whether that happens.”
Minnesota on Monday reached 51,803 lab-confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and 1,576 deaths from the infectious disease — and is closing in on 1 million diagnostic tests. Case growth has increased from six cases per 100,000 people per day on June 16 to 11 cases per 100,000 now — and health officials are concerned that this could lead to a second surge of increases in hospitalizations and deaths.
The majority of the 80 or so complaints this weekend involved customers or workers not wearing masks, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director. One involved a worker wearing a Halloween mask rather than a protective face covering.
The number itself wasn’t unusual, Ehresmann said, as the state has been fielding complaints all summer regarding violations of existing social distancing guidelines or worker mask requirements — particularly at bars and restaurants after they were allowed to reopen for indoor service on June 10.
Health officials had hoped the complaint number might go down with the mandate adding the force of law to the safety measure.
A northern Minnesota rodeo this weekend hosted a packed crowd of visitors — many of whom didn’t wear masks — and a Republican conference had many attendees lacking masks as well. Two Walmart shoppers in Marshall, Minn., were involved in a disturbance for wearing face coverings with swastikas on them.
Noncompliance for individuals could result in petty misdemeanors and $100 fines, though health officials said they aren’t seeking punishment and have distributed millions of masks statewide for those who don’t have them or forget them during outings.
Business owners could face $1,000 fines and misdemeanor charges that in extreme circumstances could result in 90 days in jail and $25,000 in civil fines as well as licensure actions. Malcolm said businesses have complied without the need for such penalties.
“Our most important goal is educating and gaining compliance by working with business owners and working with Minnesotans to understand why this is important,” she said. “This isn’t just regulators getting up in the morning trying to figure out how to take away people’s fun.”
Mask wearing wasn’t a source of contention at other locations this weekend, with the 2-week-old Scheels in Eden Prairie hosting thousands of customers.
The sporting goods store capped visitors at 1,000 — one-fifth its capacity — at any one time and had workers checking for masks and using synced counters to make sure they didn’t let too many people in.
Lines of groups in 6-foot-apart clusters spread out down the sidewalk and past bronzed statues of athletes and of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln.
“There was probably 75 to 80% of people over the last couple weeks that already had [masks] on” before the mandate, said Austin Link, a marketing manager for the store. “We’ve been pretty lucky. No really big issues.”
Mask wearing has been a politically divisive topic, though some national polls showed less opposition among Republicans after President Donald Trump tweeted a picture of himself wearing a mask.
Research studies are gradually building support that masks at least provide source control against the coronavirus, meaning that it prevents infected people from spreading their germs to others. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends their use in public settings.
Minnesota’s mandate doesn’t go as far as some of the roughly 30 imposed in other states that also require masks in crowded, public outdoor settings. Minnesota’s mandate requires outdoor masks for workers only when they can’t maintain social distancing on the job.
Health officials hope that the combination of mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and staying home when sick will slow COVID-19 growth in Minnesota before the start of the fall school year. Gov. Tim Walz is expected to announce on Thursday his plans for reopening schools.
Malcolm said she expects that approaches will vary among school districts and change over time in response to rising or falling COVID-19 case levels in communities.
COVID-19 case growth since mid-June has largely been fueled by infections among people 29 and younger, who are less likely to suffer hospitalizations and deaths but can spread the virus to others at greater risk.
Cases among Minnesotans 19 and younger have more than tripled from 1,752 on June 1 to 5,803.
An outbreak in Edina fueled by infections among teenagers has eased, though. One of the only cities to report its own COVID-19 activity, Edina reported 19 new cases per day on July 1. That has dropped to 3.9 cases per day now.
Statewide, two COVID-19 deaths were reported Monday — continuing a streak since July 2 of fewer than 10 deaths.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased only slightly from a low this month of 231 on July 10 to 257 on Monday.
The hospitalization total on Monday included 126 people with COVID-19 in intensive care, though, the highest such number since July 5. That ICU number had been trending downward for much of July amid improved airway management and other care techniques for patients with COVID-19, along with new drug therapies.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744