BEMIDJI -- After an update on the coronavirus situation from Sanford Health and a lengthy discussion, the Bemidji City Council established a face mask requirement at its meeting Monday, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, July 21.

The action was taken first by Mayor Rita Albrecht, who amended the city’s original declaration of local emergency passed in March requiring individuals to wear a mask at indoor public spaces. Because this action would only be in effect for three days, the council then took a vote which passed 3-1-1 to extend the amendment.

Voting in favor of the move was Albrecht, as well as Ward 1 Council member Michael Meehlhause and Ward 4 Council member Emelie Rivera. Against the measure was Ward 5 Council member Nancy Erickson and abstaining was Ward 3 Council member Ron Johnson.

The amendment now means individuals ages 5 and older are required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth when in indoor public spaces, including businesses. Violations of the declaration will be handled by law enforcement, with options including warning letters, an administrative citation, and/or misdemeanor prosecution.

Public spaces listed in the city documents include:

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  • Restaurants and bars.
  • Spaces of public accommodation.
  • Public transportation.
  • Entertainment venues, which will require people to wear a face covering within six feet of another person. When a user is seated and not within six feet, though, they may remove the face covering.
  • At gyms and fitness centers.
  • Common spaces in multi-family and multi-tenant office buildings. These include hallways, lobbies and mail rooms.

There are exemptions with the new mandate, though, such when a person is eating or drinking at a restaurant. Additional exemptions include medical or disability reasons exempted by a medical professional, identification purposes, individuals speaking to an audience with six feet of distance, first responders when not practical and in settings where it's not feasible such as rendering medical services.

Facilities operated by the County, State, or Federal Government are also exempt, however individuals are required to wear them in courtrooms.

The mandate also doesn't extend to educational facilities, as those are regulated by state orders.

The entire amendment can be viewed at the bottom of this article.

The Bemidji City Council instituted a mask mandate at its meeting Monday evening, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning, requiring face masks to be worn in all indoor public spaces. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
The Bemidji City Council instituted a mask mandate at its meeting Monday evening, which went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning, requiring face masks to be worn in all indoor public spaces. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Monday's discussion on the new mandate was a continuation of one that began at a city work session a week ago. In the time since, the number of active COVID-19 cases in Beltrami County went to 41 and on Monday Sanford officials said there were four current hospitalizations.

During the conversation, Erickson noted that she was more supportive of another option made available to the council, which was to adopt a resolution encouraging businesses and the public to wear masks.

“Were we to do a resolution, or any of these, it’s a law, which now puts it in the legal realm,” Erickson said. “I’m concerned about the number of law enforcement officers we have available to potentially monitor all of this. I really would prefer a business set its own rules inside its own establishment.

“Some people in very small businesses may not have more than 20 people that come in there a day and they may decide on their own that the risk is not there for them,” said Erickson. “So, I do not like to mandate this policy.”

Albrecht said a mandate has been looking to be more necessary lately, though.

“We expect people to take personal responsibility, and that would be my hope that people would do that,” Albrecht said. “But, it’s obvious that some people aren’t taking that responsibility. The fact that there is a spike right now, it means now is the time that we need to do this. Not next week or the week after.”

In his remarks Johnson said he would prefer only having a discussion tonight, and taking action after more time for research is allowed. However, Meehlhause argued action must be taken sooner.

“I think it’s worth it, we’re not asking a lot,” Meehlhause said. “There have been entities in the community encouraging masking in the community, but the reality is our cases are rising exponentially. I think the time to wait on action has passed. The moment is on us right now. We need to do this to protect ourselves, and more importantly, other people, because we’re a community that cares for each other.”

As part of her statements, Rivera noted that there have already been requests for municipalities to create such a mandate.

“There’s all kinds of associations, more than I can list, that are recommending mandatory mask laws,” Rivera said. “People coming from the medical field are overwhelmingly supportive of a mandatory mask ordinance… The evidence is clear. Our health officials support it. Our medical officials support it.”

Medical officials were on hand Monday to confirm their support for face masks. During their presentation, Sanford medical experts confirmed that oxygen does not decrease when wearing masks and that they leave enough of a gap for CO2 to leave.

Masks have also been noted to be effective according to several medical studies. According to an article published by the University of California San Francisco, one study published in the British scientific journal Nature showed that masks can significantly reduce respiratory viruses emitted in droplets and aerosols.

Another study cited by UCSF published in the health journal Health Affairs compared the COVID-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates were approved in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The study found that the mask mandates led to a slowdown in the daily COVID-19 growth rate.

In another scientific paper referenced by UCSF, featured on the site arXiv which is owned by Cornell University, researchers estimated that 80% of the population wearing masks would do more to reduce the spread of the coronavirus than a strict lock down.

In a separate article published in the medical journal Future Microbiology, researchers said in the absence of an available vaccine or antiviral, properly designed do-it-yourself face masks are the most efficient way to control the community spread of COVID-19.

Other cities around Minnesota have passed similar mandates including Duluth, St. Cloud, Rochester, Winona and areas in the Twin Cities. Bemidji's mandate will end on Dec. 31, or when the peacetime emergency order ends. A mandate by Gov. Tim Walz would also supersede the city's mandate.

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