Mankato City Council group photo (copy) (copy)

The Mankato City Council, shown in a photo taken early in 2019, is made up of Council President Mike Laven and Mayor Najwa Massad (seated) and, left to right, Council members Karen Foreman, Dennis Dieken, Mark Frost, Jenn Melby-Kelley and Jessica Hatanpa.

{child_flags:featured}Public to weigh in Monday on mask mandate

{child_byline}By Mark Fischenich

mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com

{/child_byline}

MANKATO — Mankatoans will have the opportunity next Monday to speak for or against a mandate that masks be worn in most public indoor spaces in the city to fight the spread of COVID-19.

A divided City Council voted 4-3 to set the public hearing for July 6, but it will take a super-majority of at least five votes to actually enact the emergency ordinance.

The three council members who voted against setting the public hearing — Mark Frost, Jessica Hatanpa and Dennis Dieken — were the same three who voted a week earlier against Council member Jenn Melby-Kelley’s request to hold Monday night’s special meeting to consider setting a public hearing on a mask mandate.

Melby-Kelley made an impassioned case for hearing from the people and then passing the ordinance on July 6 but also said she was baffled by her three colleagues’ opposition to setting the special meeting.

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. This is actually a health crisis,” she said. “... Why did three of you say ‘No’ to having a discussion about this?”

Frost, Dieken and Hatanpa favored an education campaign encouraging mask-wearing — the third option offered to the council Monday night by City Manager Pat Hentges.

The first alternative was the most aggressive and the one that ultimately passed on the 4-3 vote: to set a public hearing for next Monday on an emergency ordinance that could take effect the next day — July 7 — if five members of the council support it after hearing from citizens.

That immediate effective date is allowed only when the council uses the “emergency ordinance” section of Mankato’s city charter “to meet a public emergency affecting life, health, property or the public peace.”

Under the standard process of passing ordinances, more than a month passes between the council vote and when the new regulations take effect. The lag time gives the city a chance to publicize the ordinance and also allows an opportunity for the public to petition for a citywide vote on the regulations. If 15% of registered voters petition for the referendum, the ordinance takes effect only if a majority of voters support it.

While emergency ordinances can be imposed immediately and aren’t subject to the threat of a referendum, they automatically expire 61 days after taking effect unless the emergency conditions continue to exist and five members of the council vote for an extension. If the crisis abates in less than 60 days, emergency ordinances can be rescinded with 72-hours notice with the same supermajority requirement.

The second alternative offered by Hentges was to move forward on a mask requirement using the traditional non-emergency process for passing an ordinance. That process requires the public to be notified of the ordinance at least seven days before the public hearing date, meaning the hearing wouldn’t have occurred until Monday, July 13, and the ordinance would not have taken effect before mid-August.

Unlike the supermajority required for an emergency ordinance, a simple majority of four council members would have sufficed for passage. While that four-vote threshold seems more within reach for supporters of the mask mandate, they indicated that fast action is required to avoid further unnecessary spread of the new coronavirus.

Melby-Kelley, an Old Town coffee shop owner, hasn’t been inclined to make lengthy speeches during her initial term on the council but spoke forcefully Monday night about the need for leadership to protect residents and workers in the time of a pandemic.

“We are seven leaders ... . We have to make a decision tonight to help keep our community safe,” she said, comparing opposition to mask-wearing to the arguments made against banning smoking in bars and restaurants.

In 2006, when Mankato was one of the first cities in the state to ban smoking in public indoor spaces, smokers said their civil liberties would be violated and business owners predicted they would see a massive loss of customers and might be forced to close.

“We got the same arguments then,” Melby-Kelley said, adding that the debate reoccurred a year ago when Mankato raised the tobacco-purchasing age to 21.

“People were telling us we had no right to do that,” she said, noting that Frost was a leader during the Tobacco-21 issue. “We did it because we care about our community.”

Council President Mike Laven, who was on the council in 2006, said the smoking ban and the mask mandate are similar — the primary difference being that people could see the carcinogenic smoke being exhaled in indoor spaces 14 years ago.

“People who were smoking were hurting people’s health, whether it’s patrons or servers,” Laven said. “... That’s what’s happening with COVID when you’re not wearing a mask.”

Frost said there’s a clear distinction between protecting people from second-hand smoke and requiring people to wear a mask. The effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of the coronavirus is uncertain, he said, while the direct correlation between disease and tobacco smoke was thoroughly documented.

“We’ve got about 150 years of evidence of what happens with smoking,” Frost said.

Hatanpa said she’s concerned about the ability to enforce a mask ordinance when Minnesota is already struggling to enforce social-distancing standards in bars. And she worried that people would end up in court, mentioning the possibility of children being cited for being maskless at an ice-cream parlor because their parents didn’t provide them with a mask.

Hatanpa called Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott about how cases would be prosecuted if a mask ordinance was passed and said McDermott told her citations would result in court appearances, including children potentially ending up in juvenile court.

“I don’t want to divide our community any further on this and make it a criminal act,” she said.

Laven suggested those concerns were unwarranted, pointing again to the smoking ban. Police and prosecutors weren’t required because people simply followed the new rules in 2006.

“I don’t recall us ever arresting anyone or citing anyone for smoking in a bar or restaurant,” he said.

Hentges said warnings would be the first enforcement action taken. Misdemeanor citations could follow for repeat offenses, and businesses that have city licenses such as a liquor license could face $200 fines if they flouted the ordinance by allowing customers and staff to ignore the requirements.

After everyone on the council had an opportunity to comment, Frost made a motion supporting a $50,000 education campaign, done in conjunction with medical professionals, to encourage mask-wearing. It failed on a 3-4 vote.

Melby-Kelley then proposed going forward with next week’s public hearing and was joined by Laven, Council member Karen Foreman and Mayor Najwa Massad.

Before the vote, Laven told his colleagues that the issue was not yet whether masks should be required but whether the public should be allowed to speak to the council on the topic.

“If you’re voting against (the motion) you’re stopping the community from weighing in on an issue,” Laven said.

After the vote, Dieken said that wasn’t his intent even though he voted against scheduling the public hearing: “I’m not opposed to public input on this matter at all. I was looking for Option C.”

“Was that a ‘Yes’ vote then, Mr. Dieken? Or was that a ‘No,’” Laven asked.

Hatanpa and Frost also said their “No” votes weren’t in opposition to hearing from the public.

“I think we all feel the same way,” Frost said.

The proposed ordinance closely follows one adopted by the city of Minneapolis two months ago, requiring anyone over the age of two “and able to medically tolerate a face covering” to wear a mask over the nose and mouth whenever they go to any indoor public place such as a restaurant, bar, store, government buildings and other facilities open to the general public. It would also require all employees in such places to wear masks if they have “face-to-face contact with the public.”

Details on the July 6 public hearing are pending, but it will be conducted online because of COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings. And the debate is expected to draw a substantial crowd with commenters likely limited to two minutes each.

“I expect you’ll have a lot of interest — tuning in and Zooming in, as you have in the past,” Hentges said, making another reference to the city’s history of emotional tobacco-related public hearings.