ST. CLOUD — The St. Cloud City Council did not impose a citywide mask mandate at a heated meeting Monday, despite a 4-2 vote in support of the move.
Four city council members voted in favor of the mandate and two voted against. It did not pass, however, because the emergency ordinance needed a supermajority vote. Five members would have had to vote in favor of the mandate.
Council members Carol Lewis, George Hontos, Steve Laraway and Dave Masters voted in favor of the mandate, and members Paul Brandmire and Mike Conway voted against. Jeff Goerger was not present.
Around 30 residents crowded a board room in the Stearns County Courthouse on Monday night, about half of them wearing masks and half of them not wearing masks. Some held handwritten signs with slogans like, "Mask Mandate or Resign!" or "Represent us not rule over us!"
Several times during the meeting spectators became disruptive, shouting at each other and the council. At one point before the vote the council took a 10-minute recess in an attempt to calm residents down.
Earlier in January, CentraCare staff met with St. Cloud area mayors and local leaders to encourage them to institute a six-week mask mandate to slow the spread of COVID-19 and preserve hospital staffing levels.
Area mayors declined the mask mandate request but agreed to sign a joint message to residents encouraging them to wear masks indoors, limit interactions with others outside their workplace or family, get vaccinated, wash their hands and stay home if they're sick.
Monday's discussion was added to the agenda by council member Carol Lewis, who said the council wasn't able to discuss the mask mandate before Mayor Dave Kleis signed the joint message.
The vote came as about one-fourth of all CentraCare Health patients test positive for COVID-19 and the hospital system's intensive care unit and critical care beds still remain above maximum capacity.
The emergency mask mandate would have gone into effect Monday at midnight and would have expired Feb. 15.
Violating the mandate would not have been a criminal offense, but businesses in violation of the ordinance may have been subject to administrative action, and people who refused to wear a mask in the proper setting may have been subject to trespassing, according to the emergency ordinance.
Council split on mask mandate
City council members were split as they explained their positions on a temporary mask mandate.
"If your medical community is asking for help, you need to help them," Carol Lewis said at the meeting. "I think it's incumbent on us to help them out. And I think that we are doing a disservice to the people who care for us and keep us healthy. … So I think it's a very reasonable ask."
Lewis said she doesn't like wearing a mask but she does it to protect people like her brother, sister-in-law and friend who could likely die if exposed to COVID-19 due to their medical conditions.
Council member Dave Masters said a mask mandate is a very divisive issue and he sees both sides. Looking at the high number of COVID deaths and cases reported by the Minnesota Department of Health recently however, he said it's time to take action.
"I don't necessary see that it's unreasonable asking the public to step up for a three-week period and put masks on to help lower the curve so [CentraCare] can then take care of the number of patients that have been coming in," Masters said. "I don't necessarily see it as a personal freedom, I see it as we are helping others out as well as yourself."
Mike Conway said he would not support a mask mandate.
"I didn't two years ago. And I'm not going to now," he said. "If you feel that you think it's important for you to wear a mask, by all means. Nobody's preventing you from wearing a mask."
Conway said he has an issue with the leadership CentraCare is providing, and said fewer than 1% of people sick with the virus have died from COVID-19. Sources including Oxford University put the current case fatality rate in the U.S. at 1.21% and higher in many other nations.
"God knows we miss those people. How many of those people had other issues besides this?" he said. "We've gone through the litany of what we've been asked to do two years ago. Closed down, masked up, do your thing, six weeks to flatten the curve. Then we said, 'got to get the shots, get the vaccine, the vaccine is the thing.' Now we're up to 'you're not fully vaccinated unless you give at least one, now sometimes two boosters.'"
Conway said, "these masks are not going to prevent somebody from transmitting or receiving" the virus and said he got his vaccine but still got sick.
"Some people will say, 'Well, that's because you got a lesser case.' Maybe, maybe not," Conway said. "First time in my life the state of Minnesota's ever been been able to tell me which virus gave me a head cold."
He said "there's no compliance, there's no enforcement with anything we're doing," so all a mask mandate would do is "make people against each other."
Studies have shown that surgical masks reduce both the emission and inhalation of virus-laden respiratory droplets. People who have been vaccinated may still get sick from COVID-19 but are significantly less likely to develop serious illness than people who are unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
'The voluntary ask has not worked'
George Hontos said as we move into the third year of the pandemic many people have experienced tragic losses, business disruptions and school disruptions and "certainly our hospitals and medical community is facing a very difficult time."
"It doesn't take much to realize, even in this room, over 60% of the people are unmasked. The voluntary ask has not worked," he said. "So here we are, we're faced with a difficult situation, no one wants to be here. I'm certain that the medical community does not want to be where they're at today, with the difficulties they have. And I don't know why we cannot overlook our personal opinions or political opinions and just take one for the team."
Hontos said some local leadership, specifically St. Cloud area mayors, "did not show any courage."
"I will support this ordinance because I want to show CentraCare that we will do what we can as elected officials to help them and help their staff and help our community and seek special interest in doing what's good for the community as a whole and not let our personal political opinions get in the way of that," he said.
Kleis said he wasn't going to speak at all at the meeting, but wanted to respond to Hontos' statement to say the area mayors "did not turn our back on the community." He said he listened attentively to CentraCare's presentation earlier this month and suggested the community come together, then reached out to area mayors to sign a joint statement asking for voluntary cooperation.
"It takes far more courage to say no than it does to say yes," Kleis said. "And saying no is something that I believe in. I do not question the ask that was given to wear a mask and get vaccinated and get boosted. I believe in that. … But as a city, as a city, I do not believe that, first of all, it's the role of a city."
Paul Brandmire said he wanted to go on record to congratulate the mayor for doing a "very good job under the circumstances" and apologize for any criticism he's received from the public, "because I don't think you or we deserve the anguish and the anger and the hatred and the vitriol we've been getting in our emails and phone calls."
He said having council member Steve Laraway voting on the mandate, as chairman of CentraCare's board, would be a conflict of interest. A city official told the council Laraway is not required to recuse himself because he does not have a pecuniary or monetary interest in the outcome of the vote.
Laraway said CentraCare's intensive care unit and hospital beds are full and "employees are being pushed to the limit," so a six-week mask mandate would help hospitals significantly.
"This is a real thing," he said, which was met with yells and interjections from some unmasked people in attendance, forcing the council to take a 10-minute recess.
"You have the largest employer in the region, you have the biggest economic engine in the whole area … the organization that leads us in public health and takes care of you, takes care your loved ones … [the] organization that leads the quality of life in St. Cloud, and they're asking for help and we say no," Laraway said. "They're asking for three weeks. Three weeks. Who's the selfish person then? If you can save one life, if you can save one person? Don't believe it? It's real."
After the vote, Lewis asked if they could reassess the mask mandate and add another vote and public hearing to a future meeting agenda. She was informed that even if it were to pass as a regular ordinance, the mandate wouldn't be valid for another 30 days, past the timeline for a six-week mandate.
At the open discussion portion at the end of the meeting Brandmire spoke about COVID for about 10 minutes and said it has already peaked in the St. Cloud area.
Dr. George Morris, CentraCare's incident commander for COVID-19 response told the St. Cloud Times Tuesday the St. Cloud area is currently seeing a high plateau of cases and may reach a peak in about a week.
At the meeting Brandmire also expressed skepticism about how full CentraCare hospitals are and said in two years, "I have yet to see a reliable study which proves that the masks have any effect whatsoever in terms of COVID. I've seen plenty that show that they don't work, and I've seen plenty that show that masks are actually harmful."
Morris said St. Cloud Hospital's ICU is still over 100% capacity.
The CDC cites at least 10 studies in the past two years that have confirmed the benefit of universal masking in community level analyses. Each analysis demonstrated that, following directives from organizational and political leadership for universal masking, new infections fell significantly.
Studies have also shown that masks do not reduce the wearer's oxygen intake, trap carbon dioxide or weaken your immune system, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"I will never understand why American citizens scream, 'Please I beg you, put more restrictions on me. Because we aren't smart enough to make our own decisions based on evidence and our intellect.' What has happened to us?" he said. "If you want to wear masks, by all means wear a mask. If you want me to wear a mask because your brother is sick, I'll wear a mask out of respect. You want to get the jab, get the jab. You want to live in your basement or withdraw completely from society? Do so. Leave the rest of us alone."
Becca Most is a cities reporter with the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-241-8213 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @becca_most.
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This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: Mask mandate does not pass St. Cloud City Council in heated meeting