by CHRIS ROGERS
Last week, Winona Mayor Scott Sherman urged Winona County Board members to take action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as infections continue multiplying and hospitalizations rise in the region. County Board members Marie Kovecsi, Greg Olson, and Marcia Ward said Sherman advocated for them to adopt a countywide mask mandate. Sherman maintained that he asked County Board members to consider a wide range of prevention strategies.
The County Board voted 3-2 on Tuesday night to pursue a countywide mask mandate.
Sherman’s call for action came as local COVID infections have reached one of their highest levels ever. In the past seven days, 157 new infections were reported in Winona County, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). That is a more than 2,500-percent increase from one month ago, when just six cases a week were reported. The county saw infection rates this high last September and October, in the lead up to last winter’s hospital-filling surge. COVID hospitalizations are already starting to tax nearby hospitals, Winona County Public Health Supervisor Melanie Tatge said.
“We are under a public health emergency right now,” Sherman said. He described why he advocated for County Board members to act: “As an elected official, I reached out to other elected officials to consider it, to listen to their public health officials and their recommendations.”
Ward, Kovecsi, and Olson said that Sherman asked them to consider a countywide mask requirement. Sherman claimed his request was not specifically focused on a mask mandate. “My general ask of them was to follow whatever measures were recommended by their staff. That was the general ask. Whether masks came up, or other things, that is — I’m sure I said masks,” he said.
“I got a personal contact from the mayor that he feels a countywide mandate would be better [than a city one],” Olson said in an interview.
Earlier this month and again at Tuesday’s meeting, county public health staff gave the County Board an update on the COVID situation, including a slide listing potential policy options, such as requiring employees and visitors wear masks in county-owned buildings or adopting a countywide mask requirement in all indoor, public spaces, but county staff did not advocate for any of the options.
“It is one of the possible actions I am proposing to the board,” Tatge said Tuesday afternoon when asked if she was recommending the County Board adopt a countywide mask mandate. “There would be multiple different steps that the board could take.” She continued, “I’m posing it as a possible action that the county can take, but I’m not asking them to vote on it.” Asked if she thought the County Board should adopt a mask requirement, Tatge demurred, but added, “I think the evidence suggests that masks are effective and it’s a mitigation strategy the County Board could take to protect county residents … If the County Board decides to take that up, we’d be in full support of it.”
Dozens of studies show that masks are effective in reducing the risk of COVID transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and MDH. Masks only reduce — not eliminate — the risk, but when used together with other risk-reducing strategies, such as social distancing, the combination can add up to make a significant difference, Tatge said.
Last year, the city of Winona, not the county, took action on masks. Former Winona Mayor Mark Peterson enacted a citywide mask requirement and the City Council subsequently voted to endorse the rule. Recently, Rochester, Minn., Mayor Kim Norton enacted a short-term mask requirement, but the City Council voted against continuing it. In an interview last week, Sherman said it is his understanding that, as mayor, he has the power to enact a mask requirement and said that the city is seriously considering a mask mandate.
So why ask the county to act? “They are the public health department for our area,” Sherman said. “They have that department for a reason, and I feel they are better suited for these types of actions when it comes to a public health emergency,” he added.
“Everyone is waiting for someone else to make a move,” Kovecsi said. “The bottom line is, the buck literally stops here at the county level … Prevention — that’s our responsibility,” she continued. “Other governments don’t have direct responsibility for public health. By Minnesota statute, the county does. We have all the public health staff. We have responsibility for all the other vaccinations. We have public health responsibility,” Kovecsi told the Post.
Sherman could be making the same request of his City Council instead of turning to the county, Ward said. “Cities can do it. The city of Rochester, Kim Norton, mayor, did a three-day emergency declaration, and he could do the same,” she argued. “Maybe he already knew that he didn’t have the support of the council,” Ward said.
As for the wisdom of mask requirements themselves, Ward said, “It should be your choice. But I don’t like mandates.” She noted that the county has done a lot to promote and distribute vaccines. For herself, “Maybe I’ll wear a mask, and maybe I won’t. I am fully vaccinated.” The CDC recommends that all people wear masks in indoor, public spaces regardless of vaccination status, wherever COVID transmission is high or substantial, which covers nearly the entire U.S.
Asked if requiring masks could help save lives, Ward said, “I don’t disagree. Again, if people want to wear a mask, that’s fine … but trying to mandate, I think we’ll get more pushback. We’ll entrench people more in their own opinions if we mandate.”
Asked last week if she would support a mask requirement, Kovecsi responded, “I’m hoping we seriously discuss all the options. Vaccination is the main one. How can we continue to encourage vaccinations? Our vaccination rate has gone up slightly. I think we need to think about how we reach people who have hesitancy and doubts.” Kovecsi ultimately voted to pursue a mask mandate.
Sherman: No consideration of ‘shutting’ businesses
In an interview last Thursday with Winona Radio, Sherman told Winonans, “Start taking these precautions immediately so we don’t get into a spot where we have to do a mask mandate. Potentially, further down the road, based on the numbers we’re looking at right now, I hate to say it but we might have to start looking at shutting businesses and other things down at some point if things don’t turn around pretty quick.”
Asked about the statement, Sherman told the Post, “Instead of meaning ‘we,’ the city, I would say the government is going to have to be looking at that stuff,” explaining that he thought other governments, such as the state, might have to take such measures. Sherman said the city is not considering shutting any businesses down, and asked if the city would have the power to do so, he responded, “I don’t know even.” He added, “Right now we’re looking at a mask mandate; we’re not looking at restricting capacity or hours or anything like that.”
Sherman said of his original wording, “I said it; I’ve got to live with it.”
“Shutting down businesses would be excessive and would be catastrophic to our economy,” Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom said. Ransom said she had heard from several business owners who were worried and upset after hearing the mayor’s comments. “He should know that he doesn’t speak for just himself,” she added.