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With mandate set to begin, governor has chambers distribute masks

With Gov. Tim Walz’s mask mandate set to commence at midnight on Friday, chambers of commerce across the state have been tasked with distributing millions of free masks to businesses.

Walz announced the mask mandate Wednesday, shortly after the legislature’s special session ended. Once it’s in place, Minnesota will join some 30 states that have already enacted similar mandates.

According to Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Director Nort Johnson, masks will be funded by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. DEED will collaborate with the Minnesota Department of Health to distribute the masks.

Johnson was caught off guard by the governor’s announcement. The chamber president said he received no advance notice that chambers would play such a larger role in mask distribution, only learning about it when the governor announced it at his press conference.

Each county in the state will receive a proportional share of the 4 million masks available, distributed to its largest Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has a responsibility to distribute those masks to other businesses and, if applicable, smaller chambers within the county.

While the mask mandate will effectively go into place on Saturday, masks won’t arrive at local chambers until Monday. Nonetheless, Johnson said the phones have been “ringing off the hook” with businesses and even individuals interested in getting free masks.

“We’ve been answering the phone all morning and have even had people stopping by the office for masks,” he said.

Johnson said that Rice County will receive 38,000 masks. According to his calculations, that breaks down to 24 masks per business. The Faribault Chamber will collaborate with the Northfield Area Chamber and the Lonsdale Chamber to distribute the masks. Thanks to the generosity of a local supplier, 10,000 additional masks have been made available for Faribault area businesses at an extremely low cost. Johnson said those masks could be purchased at the Chamber in packages of 50 for $40.

Owatonna Chamber President Brad Meier said that Steele County will receive 30,000 masks. He said that chamber is still working out exactly how the masks will be distributed, and the Blooming Prairie Chamber will be a partner.

Brad Olson, who owns the Kernel Restaurant in Owatonna, was one of many business owners to reach out to the chamber after the mask distribution plan was announced. Olson said that he expects to be giving out plenty of masks to customers in the coming weeks and months.

Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst expressed optimism that the new order will succeed in reducing the spread of COVID-19. While Minnesota has fared better than some states, the number of cases has continued to steadily climb.

“The intent of the order is to balance public health needs as well as business needs,” Purfeerst said. “There have been instances in other states where states have had to dial back on reopening… (here in Minnesota) we want to see our businesses continue to be open and serve the public.”

Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, who serves as president of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, said he hopes the mandate will help to achieve more voluntary compliance, particularly with the support of local businesses.

“We won’t be arresting people if they aren’t wearing it,” he said. “I’d like to think by now that everybody would have one.”

Defying the mask order constitutes a petty misdemeanor, which can leave one subject to citations and fines. However, the governor said that he hopes law enforcement will have enough masks to hand out to those who don’t have one.

Not everyone is enthused about the governor’s mask mandate. Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, argued that the mandate constitutes a “one size fits all” approach that will put an unnecessary burden on rural communities.

State Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, first called for a mask mandate weeks ago and said he is pleased to finally see it enacted. Lippert said that while some rural counties may not have a ton of cases yet, others have been hit hard and the virus can spread fast.

“I think this is a simple thing we can do to care for one another and protect local businesses,” he said. “The evidence on masks is very clear, and that this has to be a key part of our strategy.”

The mask mandate is set to last until the expiration of the Peacetime Emergency, which can be extended by the governor for 30 day periods indefinitely so long as both houses of the state legislature don’t act to end it. Each time he extends the order, the governor is legally required to call legislators into session to give them an opportunity to object. The Republican-controlled State Senate has repeatedly passed bills to end the emergency, but they’ve been blocked by the DFL-controlled House.

The governor had expressed interest in implementing a mask mandate weeks ago, but held off in hopes of achieving buy-in from Republican leaders. That never came, and the mandate was condemned by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and other Republicans.

Council embraces more downtown housing

Additional housing could soon be available in downtown Faribault if relaxed regulations are approved by the City Council.

The robust discussion over current city ordinance was started in response to Developer Todd Nelson’s recently approved proposal to convert the upper two floors of the former Masonic Lodge at 230 Central Ave. into apartments.

The council was required to issue a variance for the project because under a city ordinance, first implemented more than 20 years ago to address parking concerns, the number of residential units downtown is limited by a restrictive formula.

Initially, the formula was coupled with a requirement that parking stalls accompany any new housing development.. That requirement was scrapped to help enable downtown building owners to develop upstairs apartments, according to City Administrator Tim Murray.

Once it’s completed, the former Masonic Lodge will be far from the only downtown building with an amount of apartments considered excessive by current city ordinance. In his memo to the council, City Planner Dave Wanberg gave several other examples of downtown buildings which wouldn’t meet the code.

Wanberg further wrote, “it does not appear that 230 Central is a unique property within the (Central Business District).” However, the council felt the formula too restrictive and complicated for 230 Central.

For consistency’s sake, Wanberg encouraged councilors to consider altering the ordinance to allow projects like the one at 230 Central to proceed without a variance — or plan on denying variances to other projects at least superficially similar to the 230 Central Ave project.

Some councilors were more eager than others to embrace the proposed change, with Elizabeth Cap among the most supportive. Cap, who’s not seeking reelection in November, said that the change would help the city to achieve its goals under the Journey to 2040 vision.

“The more people we have living in our downtown, the more people who will shop there and participate in events,” she said.

Councilor Royal Ross was a bit more skeptical. While he strongly supports an effort to encourage the development of more housing units downtown, he raised concerns that the ordinance as drafted could lead to unintended consequences.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out a way where somebody can own one of our beautiful historical buildings and put some beautiful apartments in there,” he said. “We don’t want them to put in 10 one-bedroom apartments. That would be a density disaster.”

Councilor Tom Spooner also raised concerns that loosening the ordinance too much could lead to problems. When it comes to downtown housing units, Spooner said the primary focus should be on quality, not quantity.

Still, a majority of councilors expressed support for making the formula less complicated and somewhat less restrictive. Councilor Janna Viscomi said that a modified ordinance would help the Council maintain its reputation as flexible and accommodating to developers.

Wanberg said that a proposed ordinance would be brought for the Planning Commission for review, but not for another month. Accordingly, the soonest the council could hold a second reading on any ordinance would be in September.

A review from the city’s parking commission stated that parking remains a challenge, particularly at peak times. In response, the city purchased historic Columbia Hall at 27 Third St. NW and its neighbor last year and demolished both to increase parking space.

Though parking continues to be a concern for some, Wanberg said he is comfortable boosting downtown housing without an accompanying plan to increase parking. Nonetheless, he said the city has carefully examined different ways to “be more efficient” in providing parking space.

“The message the council is sending is that housing is important in the downtown,” he said. “We want to work with developers to find housing for all, not hinder those efforts.”

Sandbar parties like this one last weekend on Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County are growing this year, leading to noise and trespassing complaints. (Dan Gunderson/MPR News)

Faribault starter Tyler Francis delivers a pitch against Shakopee at Bell Field. Francis threw a complete game three-hitter against Veseli Wednesday. (Nick Gerhardt/Daily News)