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Unvaccinated Beltrami County employees required to be tested weekly, wear masks

At its meeting Tuesday, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners approved a set of standards recommended by staff to be in compliance with OSHA. The standards will require a system where unvaccinated county employees will need to take a weekly coronavirus test and wear a mask at their workplace.

Beltrami County Administration Building web art

BEMIDJI -- Beltrami County employees who are unvaccinated will be required to get tested weekly for the coronavirus and wear a facemask for the foreseeable future.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve recommendations from staff to comply with standards set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The standards set by OSHA require any employer with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing and mask-wearing.

The standards by OSHA were halted for a period of time because of an injunction, but the injunction was later removed in court. The standards are now expected to be heard by the Supreme Court on Jan. 7, which will make the final decision on whether or not the standards can be in place long term.

However, because the injunction was removed, the standards did go into effect, with the Minnesota OSHA department mandating employers to have their testing in place by Feb. 9. With the approval Tuesday, county employees who are unvaccinated will now have to be tested weekly and wear face coverings.

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

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Based on input from staff, the board opted not to include a vaccination mandate. According to County Administer Tom Barry, an estimated 50% of the staff are vaccinated.

The estimated cost range of the testing over a six-month period is between $85,000 and $525,000 for the estimated 175 staff members who are unvaccinated. As part of its approval, the board authorized up to $115,000 from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to cover the testing.

The up to amount will also be used by the county to hire part-time staff, estimated at $20,000, to assist with testing, reporting and administrating the standards.

During the meeting, commissioners said they felt cornered on the subject.

“What’s happened before us is painted black and white,” Lucachick said. “They’ve 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.”

“It’s not just us in isolation,” Olson said. “It’s all of the large employers across Minnesota and the nation. It would have been awfully nice of Minnesota OSHA to say ‘let’s wait for the Supreme Court.’ Think of the expense that everyone is going to have to go through. It seems unnecessarily cruel to do this without having any real permanent guidance.”

Legislator input

Later in their meeting, the board was joined by the legislative delegation for the area. Joining the meeting were Districts 2A and 5A Reps. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook and Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, as well as Districts 2 and 5 Sens. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids and Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids.

One aspect of the upcoming legislative session discussed Tuesday was the state’s projected $7.7 billion surplus and what it means for a tax bill.

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“That’s not just $7.7 billion sitting in a bank,” Eichorn said. “That is a forecasted surplus, so it could be more or less. Minnesota is pretty healthy right now, but that money may not be there a year from now or two years from now. So we need to be careful if we do spend money. That is is one-time spending and that we don’t push mandates on the counties that we don’t fund in an ongoing way.”

Eichorn also said the state did borrow money from the federal government to fill its unemployment insurance account and is still paying back the amount. In total, Eichorn said there’s nearly $1 billion needed to backfill the unemployment insurance account.

Much of this is likely to be settled in the tax bill, as are any changes to the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. Known as PILT, the program provides payments to counties to make up for the property taxes that are unavailable because of government-owned land.

In December, the board approved legislative priorities, including the support of a new index or inflator in the program which would boost the amount of PILT dollars the county receives. The county relies on the PILT dollars, as large portions of Beltrami are non-taxable.

“One of the problems with PILT is that when we have tried raising it in the past, it ends up going in with the tax bill,” Eichorn said. “That’s obviously going to be a very political bill this year. There’s the potential to do it, but it could be a tough sell. It’s in all of our minds, though, and it’s something we will be working on.”

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