County Board mask mandate vote 8/24 (copy)

Photo by Chris Rogers

County Board members Marcia Ward (right) and Greg Olson (left) debated the merits of a countywide mask mandate in August.

by CHRIS ROGERS

 

The County Board will meet Tuesday to discuss adopting emergency powers that could enable it to adopt a mask mandate, but it appears a majority of the board no longer supports a mandate.

Three months after the County Board voted 3-2 to pursue a mask mandate in August, the County Board will finally review a draft ordinance that would empower it to impose a mask requirement or other regulations to control disease. In August, board members Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer, and Greg Olson argued that a countywide mask mandate was needed to combat the Delta variant’s sudden surge and protect the public. “When we are still at a time when kids under 12 cannot be vaccinated, we are putting them at risk,” Meyer said at the time. However, Olson told the Post in an interview Thursday he does not currently support a mask mandate because he believes county action alone would not be effective.

Olson said he supports wearing masks and getting vaccinated and was saddened by how resistant some citizens have been to making small sacrifices to keep others safe. Still, he continued, “I don’t see how a mask ordinance locally would be effective if we don’t have something more regional.” Winona County residents don’t just stay within the county, he pointed out. They go to sports games. They go shopping. They see shows. “If it’s not enacted in those places, what good is it locally?” he asked.

Echoing his comments in support of a mask mandate in August, Olson said of the county’s obligation to protect its citizens, “We have to do something.” However, he pointed to the county’s vaccine promotion campaign, vaccine clinics, public education efforts, and other steps it is taking to mitigate the spread of COVID.

After plateauing earlier in the fall, COVID infections and hospitalizations in Winona County and Minnesota as a whole have risen in the last few weeks to their highest levels of 2021. Hospitals throughout the state have been at or near capacity all fall, and the U.S. military recently deployed medical teams to relieve hospitals in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, Minn.

While some citizens praised the County Board’s consideration of a mask mandate, many are strongly opposed, saying that wearing masks should be an individual choice, or arguing — contrary to the advice of the CDC, Minnesota Department of Health, Mayo Clinic, Winona Health, and Gundersen Health System — that masks don’t work. “Stop trying to take away our free choice,” Winona resident Rougina Alexander told the board late last month.

County Board members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward have been adamantly opposed to mandating face masks. “The only one who asked me to do any kind of mask mandate was Winona Mayor Scott Sherman,” Ward said in an interview Thursday. “No one else has asked me to do a mask mandate — not from the state or any public health infrastructure at the state, not any local [officials] and not even my fellow commissioners.”

Unless Jacob or Ward have a major change of heart or Olson’s position shifts, the County Board will lack the three-vote majority needed to pass a mask requirement. 

The public health emergency ordinance, however, is another story.

The ordinance is not a mask mandate. While giving the county legal authority to support a mask requirement was the original impetus for it, the ordinance’s open-ended language would give the County Board the ability to take a variety of actions in response to a public health emergency — a mask mandate being just one possibility.

The ordinance, in essence, says the County Board may take any measure necessary to respond to a public health emergency, so long as it is consistent with federal and state law. “These measures may include, but are not limited to, efforts at preventing the spread of communicable disease by preventing diseases … ensuring the reporting of infectious diseases, preventing the transmission of infectious diseases, and implementing measures during infectious disease outbreaks …” the ordinance reads. Emergency orders issued under the ordinance would last for up to 60 days before the County Board would have to vote again to extend them. A public hearing on any emergency orders issued would be required within 10 days of their implementation. 

The authority for the ordinance comes from Minnesota Statutes 145A, which says that counties shall “implement activities … preventing the spread of communicable disease by preventing diseases that are caused by infectious agents through detecting acute infectious diseases, ensuring the reporting of infectious diseases, preventing the transmission of infectious diseases, and implementing control measures during infectious disease outbreaks.”

Asked what actions the County Board could take under the ordinance, Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman, who authored the ordinance, responded, “They can’t just do anything without reason, it has to be related to a public health emergency ... There has to be a genuine reason, a genuine risk to public health.” The ordinance is limited by the authority given to counties under Statute 145A, she said. The statute itself is also open-ended about what local governments can do to control disease, and court cases over the years have upheld a wide range of measures.

Pressed on what specific actions the board could possibly take under the ordinance, Sonneman said that the board could theoretically adopt a mask mandate. Asked whether the board could limit business hours or capacity, Sonneman responded, “Theoretically, yes, but it’s not something — I don’t think that would be the first step unless, God forbid, there was a major plague.” Asked whether the board could mandate vaccinations, she said, “As the Community Board of Health — I’ll probably get reamed for this — but theoretically they could maybe. But will they? I think not. And I would not recommend it unless there were very, very strong reasons for it to be done.”

No county officials have discussed or proposed limiting business hours or capacity or requiring vaccines.

The County Board chair currently has the power to enact emergency orders. The proposed ordinance would give that power to the board itself. Ward, who opposes a mandate, is the current board chair. Additionally, Sonneman said in August that a mask mandate would be more legally defensible if this ordinance was passed first. 

“It’s not adding any power beyond what we already have,” Olson argued. “It’s just another means to achieve it.”

Olson said he supports the ordinance, even though he doesn’t currently back a mask requirement. “For whatever the future holds in this crazy world we live in, whether it be the bubonic plague or a spill on the river or something,” Olson said, the County Board needs to be able to act without the chair initiating that action.

Kovesci and Meyer have also previously said they support having the ordinance in place, even if the County Board doesn’t adopt a mask mandate.

At Tuesday’s meeting, county staff will ask the County Board for direction on how to proceed. If the board wishes to adopt the ordinance, it must hold a public hearing at a future meeting before taking a final vote.

A full version of the ordinance is available on page 152 of the County Board agenda. Contact information for board members may be found here. The County Board will meet at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, in the board room at the Winona County Office Building, 202 West Third Street in Winona. The meeting is open to the public, the board allows public comment at the beginning of meetings, and individuals may join the meeting via videoconference.

Chris@winonapost.com