Saturday, businesses and individuals who own rental property in Duluth found an interesting letter in their mailboxes. The letter, from the Director of the St. Louis County Public Health Division, Amy Westbrook, informed property owners that they are responsible for enforcing Governor Walz’s ordinances regarding gathering size and mask-wearing at their properties or they could face prosecution.
The letter states:
Dear rental property owner:
I am writing to you because we are in the midst of a Public Health emergency that requires the help of every community partner. I’m talking, of course, about COVID-19, which is spreading in the Duluth area at an alarming rate. During the month of September, we saw nearly 900 new cases in St. Louis County, almost half of our total number of cases. We know that many of these new cases are linked to social gatherings involving college students in off-campus housing.
Neither St. Louis County Public Health nor the Duluth Police Department wants to initiate enforcement activities toward those who are putting the community’s health at risk. But please remember that as a landlord, you could face consequences if your property is identified as a public health nuisance (MN statue 145A.04) based on the activities of tenants.
Please remind your tenants to follow current safety protocols, in particular, if they are hosting a social gathering. We have already emailed all UMD students regarding public health recommendations, the governor’s orders, and the possibility of enforcement activities.
The County or City may pursue prosecution if:
– individuals host/attend indoor social gatherings with more than 10 people or outdoor gatherings with more than 25 people (Executive order 20-63)
– Individuals are not adhering to the governor’s mask orders (Executive Order 20-81)
– A property is identified as a threat to the public health as a cause of sickness (MN Statute 145A.04 subd. 8)
This pandemic is difficult for everyone, and we’ll all miss and long for a return to “normal” activities. But it’s become increasingly clear that it’s going to take all of us working together to get through this. If you have questions about COVID-19 and how to best protect yourself and others, you can call our Public Health Information Line at 218-625-3600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also find information about COVID-19, including the county’s online dashboard, at stlouiscountymn.gov/covid19
St. Louis County Public Health Division Director
MN Statute 145A.04, titled “Powers and Duties of Community Health Board”, gives the county the right to step in when they deem public health is in danger. The statute says their duties include, among others, to identify local public health priorities and implement activities to address the priorities and the areas of public health responsibility, which include:
“(iii) preventing the spread of communicable disease by preventing diseases that are caused by infectious agents through detecting acute infectious diseases, ensuring the reporting of infectious diseases, preventing the transmission of infectious diseases, and implementing control measures during infectious disease outbreaks;”
The statute also allows them entry for inspection to “enforce public health laws, ordinances or rules, a member or agent of a community health board, county, or city may enter a building, conveyance, or place where contagion, infection, filth, or other source or cause of preventable disease exists or is reasonably suspected.”
Subd. 8, which was mentioned in the letter, allows the “Removal and abatement of public health nuisances, and says:
“(a) If a threat to the public health such as a public health nuisance, source of filth, or cause of sickness is found on any property, the community health board, county, city, or its agent shall order the owner or occupant of the property to remove or abate the threat within a time specified in the notice but not longer than ten days. Action to recover costs of enforcement under this subdivision must be taken as prescribed in section 145A.08.”
The property owner would receive notice either by certified mail, an officer authorized to serve a warrant, or another person 18 years or older. If the owner can’t be reached a notice will be posted on the property. If the threat to public health is not abated in 10 days the county will treat it at the expense of the owner.
The idea that St. Louis County can demand rental property owners in Duluth become babysitters for their properties is ludicrous, and to threaten them with prosecution is unfathomable.
Their very own letter states that “St. Louis County Public Health nor the Duluth Police Department want to initiate enforcement activities”, yet, they are just fine with pushing that responsibility on landlords and property owners. I can only imagine the conversation that led up to this letter was a childish back and forth of “You do it!” “No, You do it!” between the county and police until one came up with the bright idea that they could wash their hands of all of this by making the property owners do it, and a few weeks from now, when it doesn’t work, raise their hands and say “Well, it’s the property owners fault… we told them to enforce this.”
Why would the county demand that rental property owners enforce mask and social gathering ordinances when the City of Duluth has yet to enforce them? Including, allowing gatherings of more than 25 people outdoors to protest.
Just this past weekend in downtown Duluth the bars along 1st Street were jam-packed with 20-somethings and no enforcement insight. While the bars had someone at the entrance checking IDs, there was no one keeping count on the number of people in an establishment, many of which were far beyond 50% capacity with very few in attendance wearing masks. Social distancing wasn’t enforced as strangers gathered on dance floors and around the bar. The only sign of any concern for COVID-19 was, ironically, the small signs taped to the window asking people to “Mask Up.”
It seems likely that college-age students are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in this setting, among strangers, than they at a social gathering in their home with people they know and are around frequently.
The county’s letter states that they had emailed UMD students regarding health recommendations and enforcement, however, several students we reached out to do not recall receiving such an email. Why would the county only contact UMD students? Are St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College Students dutifully following Gov. Walz’s ordinances to a T?
When a landlord asked how they should enforce the gathering restrictions at a property, they were told by a government official to call 911. Does this seem like a prudent use of time for an already overwhelmed police department? Their focus should be dealing with the fallout of other, long-term, devasting public health crises being ignored in Duluth, like drug use and homelessness.
How does the county expect landlords and rental property owners to comply with this letter to avoid prosecution? Are they expected to do nightly drive-bys and headcounts? Purchase expensive cameras to monitor the number of people entering their property?
As cases of COVID-19 drastically rise in our region, it is important to enforce the ordinances, but the county and city cannot put that in the hands of ordinary citizens. And they must be fair in applying the ordinances in the same way across the board for all.