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Beltrami County Commissioners repeal mandated COVID testing, masking policy

While the Jan. 4 Beltrami County Commissioners meeting saw the approval of weekly coronavirus testing and facemasks for unvaccinated Beltrami County employees, recent Supreme Court action prompted different action on the matter on Tuesday.

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BEMIDJI – While the Jan. 4 Beltrami County Commissioners meeting saw the approval of weekly coronavirus testing and facemasks for unvaccinated Beltrami County employees, recent Supreme Court action prompted different action on the matter on Tuesday.

With the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency temporary standard requiring any employer with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing and mask-wearing, the board voted 4-1 to approve recommendations from staff to comply during the Jan. 4 board meeting.

Commissioners Richard Anderson, Jim Lucachick, Reed Olson and Tim Sumner voted in favor of the approval while Craig Gaasvig voted against it.

The OSHA standards were halted for a period of time because of an injunction but were later removed in court. This caused the standards to go into effect with the Minnesota OSHA department mandating employees to have their testing in place by Feb. 9.

At the time, Lucachick said, “(OSHA has) laid out what you have to do. You’re not going to get by federal OSHA. This is one of those situations where you put your hands up and say, as a county elected official, ‘I don’t see any way out of this.’ The best thing we can do is cross our fingers and hope the Supreme Court acts.”

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On Thursday, Jan. 13, that’s exactly what they did.

In a 6-3 Supreme Court decision, the standards were rejected begging the question of what action the county board should take.

With Olson making a motion and Lucachick seconding to nullify and repeal the policy, the resulting discussion was kept to a minimum.

“I think we’re excited to see this go away,” County Administrator Thomas Barry said. “I just want to caveat this that the Supreme Court has stayed the decision at the moment.”

Emphasizing possible reintroduction of the policy in the future, Barry said the county would be setting it aside as opposed to abandoning it altogether.

“We’re just going to set it aside. We hope (the policy going back into place) doesn’t happen, but there will be a whole flurry of additional activity around this,” Barry continued. “So we don’t want to abandon everything entirely, but we do want to rescind it all as it was created.”

The former policy established an Emergency Temporary Standard Committee composed of a public health director, safety coordinator, human resources director, health and human services director and county administrator to render decisions and ensure compliance.

Testing would’ve been allowed during work hours — allotting up to one hour per test — expense for which would be covered with American Rescue Plan COVID Leave Funding where appropriate.

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Up to 40 hours a week of part-time staffing would’ve been authorized to administer testing using ARP funding up to $115,000 along with an increase in COVID Leave Funding by $100,000 to cover liability.

Considerable discussion and a public hearing also took place regarding the appointment of an auditor-treasurer and the possible adoption of a resolution to consider an appointment of that position.

Following public feedback, the board voted to table this and revisit the topic during the Feb. 1 meeting where a vote is expected to take place.

The full meeting can be viewed on the Beltrami County YouTube channel .

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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