St. Cloud, nearby cities reject health group’s bid for mask mandate

No one doubts the Omicron variant of COVID-19 will continue to spread across the state, including central Minnesota. But the mayors of St. Cloud and three neighboring cities do have doubts over the request by CentraCare, the region’s predominant health care provider, to impose an emergency mask mandate on their communities for the next month and a half.

CentraCare pitched the mask requirement recently in an unusual meeting with local leaders that was covered by the St. Cloud Times.

CentraCare officials met with St. Cloud-area mayors and policy makers on Friday to encourage cities and counties in Central Minnesota to enforce a six-week mask mandate to slow the spread of COVID-19 and preserve hospital staffing levels.

Because the omicron variant is so much more contagious than other strains, “masking and avoiding public gatherings is the only thing that’s going to help with this particular surge,” said CentraCare family physician Dr. Kim Tjaden.

CentraCare faces a surge in COVID cases at its eight area hospitals, along with a shortage of staff out sick due to the virus. Yet while sympathetic to their concerns, all four mayors turned down the health care system’s remedy as impractical to enforce and outside the scope of local government.

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said he wants to encourage people to get their vaccine and wear masks, but he doesn’t support government mandates on principle.

“I will strongly encourage … asking people to [wear a mask] indoors, especially as we get through these next several weeks, with the spike where it is and expected to be,” Kleis said. “But to mandate that, I don’t believe that that’s the role of city government.”

The potential legal ramifications and costs that could crop up by implementing a mandate also concerned the local leaders. So did the divisive nature of making constituents comply with a mandate many do not agree with.

Legally, Hunstiger said he also doesn’t know if he can impose a mandate as mayor, and said it’s likely if it was brought to the council it wouldn’t pass unanimously anyway. If the city was sued for the mandate, the city budget doesn’t have much space for attorney fees either, he said.

“There’s more to it than just CentraCare calling saying they want a mask mandate,” Hunstiger said. “We’ve got a lot of things we have to do to make sure we can even do it, if we can do it.”

Hunstiger said political divide and gridlock at the state and federal level makes pandemic decision-making even more of a challenge.

“There’s no way. People can’t agree on anything when it comes to this. Not even at the federal level, more or less the state and city level. Which is too bad,” he said. 

CentraCare representative Dr. Kim Tjaden pointedly panned the mayors’ consensus that mandatory measures were not the answer this time around.

“They have the authority and the responsibility to put a mask mandate in place, and we really feel strongly that that’s what we need,” she said. “We really need policy right now. We’re not asking for long-term policy. We’re asking for four [to six] weeks of masking. They can put an end date on it if they choose to. Words at this point are less important than policy.”

Yet more restrictions in response to a weaker variant of the virus do not appear to have enough public support to convince a growing number of local officials at this point. Something’s up when even the leftwing Duluth City Council also decided not to authorize an emergency mandate at its meeting this week.