During a regular city council meeting on July 13th, the Duluth City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that would require face coverings in “indoor spaces of public accommodation” throughout the city. The ordinance became effective immediately upon passing.
There are plenty of people willing to debate on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of wearing masks, with respected experts falling on both ends of the spectrum. That issue is not our concern. Where we take issue with this ordinance is how the city presented it, implemented it, and how it is to be enforced.
The Face Coverings in Indoor Spaces of Public Accommodation ordinance was spearheaded by council members Arik Forsman and newcomer Terese Tomanek to be adopted immediately without the customary two public readings under “special emergency health powers” due to the related public health concerns of COVID-19. At the time there were less than six people in all of St. Louis County hospitalized for the virus.
It is widely rumored that Forsman has bigger political aspirations and press over controversial issues is a great way to gain notoriety, just as Mayor Larson did with her “chief” shenanigans. This seems to explain why the city decided to take such a drastic measure when the state is still only considering it. Especially considering that St. Louis County, as of July 14th has had only 241 confirmed cases (184 recovered), six people currently hospitalized with only one in the ICU (out of a total of 37 hospitalizations), and 16 deaths that are primarily from congregate living facilities. Confirmed cases compared to the county’s population of 199,070 equates to 0.1% infection rate and a death rate of 0.008%.
It only makes sense to make everything more difficult for people and businesses considering those numbers, right? No.
Even if the numbers of cases and deaths in Duluth/St. Louis County were drastically higher, the implementation of the ordinance and the city’s expectations for enforcing it are the real problem.
The ordinance was “effective immediately”, but as of the next morning, most businesses had no idea what it said or what was expected of them. The city’s Public Information Officer, Kate Van Daele really dropped the ball on this one. The city’s website shows the file for the ordinance was created on June 30th. Shouldn’t every business in the city have received a letter from the city that explained the ordinance and what was expected of them, so that if it passed in the July meeting they would be able to follow the ordinance immediately? Businesses were given no information and no time to prepare their employees, create signage, order masks that they could sell to customers, etc. The City of Duluth didn’t even share the information and links to the ordinance on social media until after 12 PM the following day.
But the biggest issue with the ordinance is the enforcement and penalties for violation. The ordinance states that penalties for a first offense are $100, $250 for a second offense, and $1000 for third and subsequent offenses. The way the ordinance is worded, it appears that those penalties could be assessed on both individuals and businesses that do not follow the order.
(a) A Space of Public Accommodation Shall Require Face Coverings Indoors. It shall be unlawful for a Space of Public Accommodation to allow a person to enter or remain indoors their Space of Public Accommodation without wearing a Face Covering.
(b) Face Covering Required Indoors a Space of Public Accommodation. It shall be unlawful for a person to enter or remain indoors a Space of Public Accommodation without wearing a Face Covering.
(c) Required Notices. Spaces of Public Accommodation shall post notice of this Face Covering requirement in conspicuous locations inside and outside entrances to their Space of Public Accommodation.Cloth Face Covering in Spaces of Public Accommodation (Sec. 34-45)
As you can see in the bold text above it is unlawful for a public space to allow someone in without a face covering as well as unlawful for someone to enter without one. The ordinance makes no distinction when it comes to penalties for individuals vs businesses.
As usual, Duluth neglects to consider the impact of their actions on businesses. Now businesses must expect their employees to demand a customer wear a mask to make a purchase from them or risk paying what could potentially be thousands of dollars in fines.
In economic times like these, how do expect businesses to turn down a sale? How can the city expect the 16-year-old clerk at the gas station to demand an adult of any stature wear a mask before grabbing a jug of milk? Should small businesses that see just a handful of customers a day have to shoo customers out of their store because they won’t wear a mask? The city is asking business owners to aggressively move customers out of their “indoor space of public accommodation”, putting them in an impossible place, having to choose between losing a sale or pay a fine. The possibility of a physical confrontation can’t be ignored either.
The simple minds on the city council once again proved that they just don’t get it. Only one councilor, Derek Medved, has any business experience. He made several statements addressing the concerns of businesses. He was quoted in the DNT as saying “The last thing any business wants is to be put in the line of fire or have their employees be put in the line of fire or harm.” As well as saying, “As a business owner, I mean we’re hurting. We’re hurting financially. And I never want it to seem like wealth is put over health … But we’re all dying for business and trying to survive through this pandemic.” Councilor Tomanek reassured him that the Duluth Police Department is ready to back up the law if a patron becomes belligerent.
Great idea, Terese, having the police outside your storefront is always great for business.
Medved caved to the pressure of being framed as an a-hole for “choosing wealth over health” and voted yes, allowing the bill to pass unanimously.
The Council fortified its decision with survey results from the Duluth Chamber claiming 67% of Chamber members approved the ordinance. Did the survey explain the ramifications of the ordinance on businesses? Did they know the fines can go both ways? Did this ordinance really need to be passed under “emergency powers” without properly informing or preparing the business community?
Duluth just can’t seem to shake the reputation of being bad for business, which means the city will continue to flounder and eventually fail. When it comes to making decisions for a city, if you don’t have the knowledge and experience, or the willingness to seek both, step aside and let those who know more do better for Duluth.