by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County will not require the public to wear masks at county facilities — at least not right now. Although the county’s public health department recommends citizens wear masks in public, doing so at county buildings will remain largely optional for employees and completely optional for the public after a debate this week ended in defeat for proponents of mandatory masking.
On Tuesday, County Board members Marie Kovecsi and Chris Meyer pushed for the county to offer short windows of time where universal masking would be required — with medical and religious exceptions — at facilities such as the License Center and County Office Building.
“People were truly worried and they were concerned about their safety going into our buildings to do business,” Kovecsi said of calls from citizens that prompted her proposal. She pointed out that numerous businesses and some governments require masks.
After initially shutting down county offices to the public during Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, the county has now opened many of its offices back up with COVID-19 precautions. Many services are available online or over the phone, but some require citizens to come in person.
“I want us to be able to offer an option for those people who are most vulnerable,” Meyer stated. Whether it is a two-hour time slot when masks are required or the option to make a special appointment, the county should offer some option for people at greater risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 to visit county facilities and be assured everyone around them will wear masks, she argued. “It’s one thing to go to a store. I just won’t go there, but if you legally have to come in to get my driver’s license or some other business, I really feel like we do need to provide them with a space where they can feel safe.”
Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman recommended mandatory masking at county-controlled areas of the courthouse. Some parts of the courthouse areas are governed by court orders; others are under county control.
Internal county policy: Masks available, not generally recommended
Because people can spread COVID-19 before they realize they are sick, precautions to lower the chances of spread — even among people who seem healthy — has become a key part of America’s defense against the pandemic.
COVID-19 can spread through microscopic droplets in the air that people breathe in and out called aerosols. Cloth masks catch some of the aerosols the wearer breathes out. Cloth masks do not protect the wearer from getting infected; they reduce the risk for everyone around the wearer.
State and national public health experts recommend wearing cloth face masks as one piece of a multi-part strategy to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Masks are not a substitute for staying six feet away from others or other precautions, health experts advise.
“Wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends. The Minnesota Department of Health’s (MDH) website reflects the CDC recommendation, while MDH officials have recommended wearing masks in virtually all public settings, not just when physical distancing is impossible. In its daily updates on COVID-19, Winona County Health and Human Services tells citizens, “Wear masks when in public.”
The county’s policy for customers and employees strikes a different tune: Masks are optional, but not encouraged unless physical distancing is impossible. That mirrors the CDC guidance to “wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” County Administrator Ken Fritz explained. He added, “We encourage employees to take whatever precautions they think are necessary.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Planning and Environmental Services Director Kay Qualley said she tried to put up a sign recommending masks outside her department’s offices. “We asked to have a ‘masks appreciated’ placard, and we were told that wasn’t consistent with county policy and that’s fine,” she stated. Fritz said Tuesday’s meeting was the first time he heard of Qualley’s request, and while recommending masks does technically differ from the county’s general policy, he is open to setting different guidelines for different locations based on their unique situations.
Jacob, Fritz: Current spread doesn’t justify mask mandate
Meyer and Kovecsi’s push for a window of time where masks would be mandatory ran up against pushback from Fritz and County Board member Steve Jacob and cautionary advice from Personnel Director Maureen Holte.
“It’s putting the burden on the employees for a small amount of transactions,” Fritz said of the proposal. Fritz was more open to the idea of special appointments for masked service, but Winona County Auditor-Treasurer Sandra Suchla urged the board against appointments in the License Center, which she oversees and which was the focus of much of the debate. To usher someone to the front of a long line because they made an appointment, Suchla said, “It’s really hard to explain to people waiting in line.”
Holte warned that if the County Board was not consistent in its masking requirements for similarly situated employees, it could open the door to charges of unfair treatment.
Most of all, Fritz argued, the current level of COVID-19 spread in the area doesn’t justify requiring masks. At the meeting, he added, “It’d be totally different if we were running a much higher incident rate.”
Jacob echoed that argument. “I’d be much more onboard with sweeping, mandatory mask-wearing if we were seeing an infection rate of a dozen people per day,” he said.
Since May, the virus’ known spread in Winona County has been relatively slow: 2-5 cases per week. However, it has picked up since the County Board’s Tuesday meeting with eight new cases in the past three days alone.
Just because Winona County isn’t currently a hot spot for the virus is not a reason to relax, Sonneman argued in a memo. “Letting up on these recommended public health guidelines because we have a low infection rate is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing,” she wrote.
“It’s not that [the virus] is not here, it’s just not as prevalent,” Fritz said in an interview on Friday. “Now if it turns a corner or changes, it’s an evolving process and we’ll have to look at our processes.”
After a recent policy change, it now takes four-plus weeks for County Board members to bring an action item before the full board. Can the county move fast enough to change its policies if infections flare up? Yes, Fritz said, explaining that county staff implemented many COVID-19 policies without board action because of the urgent situation and are ready to rapidly adjust the policies as needed. “This is an evolving situation. What works today may not work tomorrow, and we’ll have to make adjustments,” he stated.
County Board member Greg Olson said he could support a two-hour window of mandatory masking, but, noting that most License Center staff have chosen to wear masks, he stated, “It sounds like they’re doing it anyway, so it’s kind of a solution in search of a problem.” Instead, he suggested, “What if we just simply say that a customer who comes in, upon request, can ask whoever is serving them in a face-to-face transaction … to wear a mask?”
Olson’s suggested compromise came after an hour and 20 minutes of debate. While the compromise doesn’t ensure other customers will be wearing masks, Kovecsi went along with it. “As long as people didn’t feel like in between they’re walking through a parade of germs,” that would be alright, she said.
Fritz stated county policy would be updated to reflect that compromise: Citizens may request that employees wear a mask when serving them in face-to-face interactions.