by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona City Council put an immediate end to Mayor Scott Sherman’s mask mandate Friday morning. The council voted 4-3 to rescind the citywide mask requirement, effective immediately, with members Michelle Alexander, George Borzyskowski, Aaron Repinski, and Steve Young voting to revoke the order and members Eileen Moeller, Pam Eyden, and Mayor Sherman dissenting. The Winona County Board is still pursuing a possible countywide mask mandate.
Sherman issued the mask order on Wednesday at around 5 p.m. It took effect Wednesday night at midnight. The order made Winona one of the first local governments in Minnesota to require masks since a state mask order expired earlier this summer.
“Masks and vaccines should remain a personal choice,” Young said in an interview. “We should not be mandating that. Government should not be mandating that. If you’re concerned about the virus, get vaccinated and wear a mask. If you’re not concerned, you shouldn’t have to submit to government.”
Borzyskowski and Alexander also said the decision should be left up to individuals.
“I think that’s what the majority of Winona wants,” Repinski agreed. He also acknowledged that things could change. “At this time, I feel it was the correct decision,” Repinski said. “Now, in the future, who knows.”
“I’m disappointed,” Sherman told the Post after the vote. “I do feel it’s a public health issue. One of our jobs as elected officials is to protect our community.” Pointing to a rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations, he added, “This could potentially cost lives, and I am worried about that, but I know I made the right decision.”
Recalling his support for the Broadway road diet, Sherman said at the meeting, “Inconvenience will never outweigh a human life in my mind.”
Young said he heard from numerous small business owners concerned about the mandate. He recalled one conversation, “A restaurant owner in particular said, ‘I lost a lot of money last year. I can’t survive another year with masks. I can’t survive with masks. People go right across the river to Fountain City, La Crosse and Holmen.’”
Asked if he thought masks help reduce COVID transmission, Young responded, “If high-quality masks are worn correctly by all people all the time, it helps. Yet here’s the proof on a society basis that it doesn’t help … Last winter Wisconsin didn’t wear masks and Minnesota was under a mask mandate and serious restrictions on how we could gather, and the cases were about the same.”
Wisconsin did have a mask mandate last winter.
“There’s evidence pointing both ways,” Repinski said of whether masks help reduce the spread of COVID.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Minnesota Department of Health, Winona County Public Health, and Winona Health say masks are an effective strategy that should be used in combination with others to reduce the spread of the virus.
In an interview after the vote, Moeller said of masks, “I think it’s one tool that helps slow the spread,” adding that she was worried for the health and safety of citizens. She expressed some disappointment with the City Council’s decision, saying, “I think that we have to go based on the advice of health care professionals and scientists, and the information that was presented — [masking] was the recommendation.”
Leading up to the vote, the City Council heard from local health officials about what they described as a fourth surge of the pandemic.
Winona Health CEO Rachelle Schultz said masking is an effective and important strategy to reduce the risk of COVID transmission. Like others, she stressed the importance of vaccinations. “We are not out of the pandemic yet and our respective actions matter,” Schultz said. In an interview on Thursday, Schultz said “we absolutely support” the mask requirement, adding, “There’s a lot of lessons we should have learned from last year, and one is, masking works.”
“We are in a surge right now,” Winona County Health and Human Services Director Karen Sanness said, noting that vaccination is a key tool to stop the spread of the virus, along with hand washing, social distancing, and masking. Trying to prevent transmission — “This is everybody’s responsibility,” she said.
Winona County Public Health Supervisor Melanie Tatge described masks, social distancing, hand washing, testing, and other COVID prevention strategies as being like layers of swiss cheese. In a single layer, there are many holes, and they may not alone be enough to stop the virus, but taken together, they can make a significant difference, Tatge said. She and other health officials stressed that getting vaccinated is the most important thing people can do to keep themselves and others safe from severe illness.
Asked what future options remain for trying to mitigate the spread of COVID, Sherman responded, “We need to look to the County Board and the county to look at implementing mitigation measures. And it could turn into the governor has to do it.”
Later in September, the Winona County Board plans to hold a public hearing on proposed ordinance changes that would empower the board to issue a countywide mask mandate. A date for the hearing has not yet been set. At its September 14 meeting, the County Board will review the ordinance changes and set the hearing date, County Administrator Ken Fritz said.