Council rejects citywide indoor mask mandate, instead urges ‘courageous and kind’ pandemic measures

A poster designed by council member Laura Caroon will be posted around the city requesting that Moorheaders wear masks in public indoor places.

city council

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

With the omicron variant running roughshod over the region, the Moorhead City Council unanimously endorsed a resolution framed by Mayor Shelly Carlson as a middle road between concern for public health and for Moorhead businesses. The group voted down a more aggressive preventive measure that would have mandated the wearing of masks for 30 days, along with setting penalties for violations.

Carlson’s resolution urges “Moorhead residents, businesses, and visitors to work together to prevent community spread of COVID-19 with a multi-faceted strategy focused on vaccination, masking, testing, and isolation/quarantine.” That includes the strong suggestion that masks be worn in indoors public settings and citizens get vaccinated, as well as an appeal to Gov. Tim Walz for more COVID-19 testing and longer hours at the Vault test site at 1110 Fourth St. S.

The mayor noted that she and the council had received what she termed “a tsunami of emails” – at least 100 – since the topic appeared on the council agenda. Some 60 residents attended the meeting at the Hjemkomst Center, the largest number by far since the wild turkey discussion two years ago in the old City Hall chambers. Eight individuals were recognized during the time devoted to public comment. Two spoke in favor of requiring residents and visitors to wear masks in public indoor spaces until the current surge in infections abates. The other six, including one from Fargo, opposed either a masking mandate or the idea of masks in general.

Half a dozen attendees did not wear masks in the meeting room, despite several requests by council members to respect the city’s policy on masking in public spaces. Later, their refusal was cited as evidence that passage of a formal mandate would net the same belligerent response.

Carlson introduced the 90-minute discussion with a detailed description of the research that led her to recommend, rather than mandate, the safety measure. “The Fargo commission defeated a mandate two weeks ago by a vote of four to one,” she noted. “The councils in West Fargo and Dilworth don’t even have it on their agendas.” She added, “Over 60% of Moorhead residents go to work in North Dakota every day.”

She pointed out that not all residents have easy access to the more effective N95 and KN95 masks now recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

“A mandate without enforcement makes no sense,” she observed. After talking with the mayors of Duluth and Rochester – with two and three times Moorhead’s population – she pointed out the difference in their ability to enforce penalties for noncompliance. Both have more city attorneys on staff (“while we share one on contracts with West Fargo and the F-M Diversion Project”) and more officers to respond to complaints. “Our much smaller police department is already eight officers short,” she said. “Each officer handles eight to nine serious complaints a day. They don’t have the capacity to respond to mask complaints, and a mandate without enforcement is useless.”

She reported that 98% of those who enter city properties, where masks have been long required, have complied with the policy. “Moorhead is kind and courageous. We’re asking you to please put on a mask,” she said. “It’s something that is easy to do.”

At the same time, Carlson emphasized, she and Clay County Commission chair Jenny Mongeau have approached Gov. Tim Walz to provide increased testing resources. The Moorhead site, operated by Vault Health, is open to both Minnesota and North Dakota residents, but hours are limited to 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays and 11 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It is closed Fridays and Saturdays.

During the public comment period, testimony both against and for masks drew applause from the gathered crowd. Two Moorhead women, nurse Cathy Chial and educator Lindsie Schoenack, spoke of the urgent medical needs caused by the pandemic and the effectiveness of masking. The other six – Stephanie Monesis of Fargo and Moorheaders Lauri Christianson. Josh West, Baylee Engquist, Clifford Dyrud and Nathaniel Lange – gave a variety of reasons to eliminate masking. Several mentioned the potential impact of a mandate on business. “Our customers will just turn around and go across the river,” said West, whose wife is an owner of Legend’s and Murphy’s Pub.

Another spoke of the ineffectiveness of masks, given the size of virus particles (a conclusion strongly challenged by council member Steve Lindaas, a physics professor), while the last speaker compared a government mandate to wear masks to communism.

Despite the disagreement among those on hand, Carlson complimented them on keeping the discussion civil.

The council members voted unanimously to support the mayor’s painstakingly worded resolution. Afterwards, though, council member Shelly Dahlquist to propose a mask requirement modeled on that of the city of Rochester, including both the parameters of the mandate and the penalties that city has put in place for violations. Business owners can ask an unmasked customer to leave; if he does not, police can remove him and charge him with trespass.

Put to a vote, Dahlquist’s measure was supported by Lindaas and Deb White, but voted down by Matt Gilbertson, Heather Nesemeier, Laura Caroon, Larry Seljevold and Chuck Hendrickson.

Prior to the second vote, White spoke eloquently of the council’s role in the community. “What should government be doing? We as elected officials are here to serve the citizens – to make decisions that balance freedom with the public good.” She compared asking citizens to wear masks in public to stopping at red lights: “Sometimes we must restrict individuals’ freedom for the greater good.”

As for the harm masking may cause businesses, she countered, “The only harm is if people willfully decide, ‘I would rather go across the river than do this one small thing to support my community.’ Think about that.”

She also alluded to online threats about “fighting to the death” and the pledge to “wear them (the council) down like we did the school board.” She said she was saddened by the polarization on an issue intended to fight an outside threat to life and health. “Some comments seem to cast us as the enemy,” she said. “I don’t see you (mask opponents) as my enemy. I see you as my neighbors.”

The resolution penned by Carlson and passed by the council urges city residents and businesses to “diligently follow COVID-19 safety guidance” with vaccinations, wearing well-fitted masks or respirators, getting tested if you have symptoms, and staying home if sick. It encourages businesses to require patrons and staff to wear masks and to provide them to those in need. Finally, residents are urged to “be cautious with activities … in the coming weeks,” adjust activities to reduce exposure and spend time outdoors.

It concludes, “The city of Moorhead, its residents, and businesses will get through this together; and if we are courageous and kind during this COVID-19 pandemic, we will be a stronger and even better city after this global health pandemic.”

Carlson shared a poster designed by Caroon that will be distributed this week by the Moorhead Business Association. Its text: “Moorhead is a courageous and kind community. Please wear a mask.”

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