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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.

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.

Minnesota governor signs police accountability bill into law

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz signed a police accountability bill into law Thursday that includes a ban on neck restraints like the one that was used on George Floyd before his death in Minneapolis, though some activist groups say the legislation falls short.

The bill, passed by the Legislature earlier this week, also bans chokeholds and fear-based or “warrior-style” training, which critics say promotes excessive force. It imposes a duty to intercede on officers who see a colleague using excessive force and changes rules on the use of force to stress the sanctity of life.

“This bipartisan piece of legislation moves us toward a critical step towards criminal justice reform,” Walz said at a Thursday news conference. “These critical reforms are long overdue — they are meant to strengthen transparency and community oversight.”

The measure also creates a new advisory council for the state board that licenses officers, makes changes in arbitration rules affecting police unions and requires more training on dealing with people with mental health issues and autism.

The bill passed after nearly two months of difficult negotiations that followed Floyd’s death on May 25 and the ensuing unrest that spread around the world over police brutality and racism. Floyd, who was Black, was killed when a white officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes as he was handcuffed and restrained by three other officers holding him down.

Members of the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus led the policing reform efforts at the Capitol, speaking with community members and law enforcement before drafting the legislation they introduced last month. POCI Caucus member and House public safety committee chairman Rep. Carlos Mariani said the legislation is the first step in preventing what happened to Floyd and Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer in a St. Paul suburb four years ago.

“The construction of this law and its passage is a powerful acknowledgment of our collective failure in the past, of our failure to (Floyd and Castile) and countless others who have been wrongfully harmed at the hands of peace officers,” Mariani said. “We have to start with that acknowledgment, otherwise we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done.”

Discussions on police accountability legislation dominated the June special session a few weeks after Floyd’s death, but lawmakers weren’t able to reach a deal on which reforms to include in the bill. Going into this month’s special session, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said restoration of felon voting rights and giving the Minnesota Attorney General’s office primary jurisdiction over prosecuting police officers were two issues that were taken off the table in negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate.

Michelle Gross, president of local advocacy group Communities United Against Police Brutality, called the reforms in the bill “low hanging fruit” and said the legislation is not nearly as comprehensive as the group had hoped.

“The autism training we thought was an important thing to have ... and we also like the fact that it bans fear-based training (which) is something we’ve been working on for quite a long time now,” she said. “But so much of what we wanted was not even given a second glance.”

Gross’ group, along with other local advocacy organizations, introduced eight policing reform bills during the special session — two of which were included in the package passed earlier this week. The legislation includes requiring police carry their own liability insurance, ending the statute of limitations for a wrongful death civil suit and allowing families of those killed by police to see body camera footage 48 hours after their death. POCI Caucus members at the news conference Thursday pointed to the statute of limitations issue as a disappointment when it failed to materialize in the final package.

Walz, a Democrat, is expected to call the Legislature back to the Capitol in August to extend his peacetime emergency powers as the coronavirus pandemic continues indefinitely. Gross said they will be back with more reforms to prevent lawmakers from moving on from police reform — a process that she said is far from over.

“For every special session that they might have, we will be there demanding change,” she said. “And once the regular session starts next year, we will be there again, with our bills, demanding change.”

Fill 'er up: Cash Wise to install fuel kiosk in parking lot

A new location for motorists to fuel up is coming to town – this time with built-in perks at the pumps.

Coborn’s Inc., parent company of Cash Wise in Owatonna, has proposed adding a new 24-hour pay-at-the-pump fuel kiosk in the northwest corner of the store’s existing parking lot. The Owatonna City Council unanimously approved the company’s conditional use permit to construct the pumps and canopy during its regular meeting on Tuesday night.

According to Kyle Higdem, the vice president of Swan Cos., developer for the project, the kiosk will be a standard metal framed structure with four fuel dispenser islands, trash cans and window washing “buckets” attached to the canopy columns. Owatonna Community Development Director Troy Klecker said that the kiosk will end up eliminating some of the parking spaces in the lot, but that the number is minimal.

“It will remove about 20 spaces, but they have more than enough to accommodate their store,” Klecker said at the council meeting. With the removal of the 20 stalls, the store will still have 42 stalls over the requirement as well as space to add an additional 20 parking stalls in the future if needed.

Klecker said that the kiosk will only have a pay-at-the-pump option and that there will be no attendant station for the facility.

The section of the parking lot that has been marked for the project is currently part of two plats, and there are numerous parcels currently on the property that include property lines that run through the main building. As a part of the overall project, the city required that the property be replatted. The applicant will replat the property prior to a certificate of occupancy being issued on the gas canopy, allowing usage of the facility.

As well as being an additional 24-hour fueling option for the community, Higdem said that this will also allow Cash Wise customers in Owatonna to take advantage of the Coborn’s Fuel Rewards program. The program allows customers to collect money toward a fuel purchase through qualifying items purchased in the grocery store. Fuel Rewards expire 30 days from the date they are earned and can be redeemed at any level.

During the city Planning Commission’s public hearing regarding the project on July 14, Commission member Mark Wilson asked Higdem if there were any plans to change the 24-foot driveway for the parking lot that the kiosk would be constructed near. Higdem said there is not.

According to Community Development Manager Greg Kruschke there is a 24-foot minimum for two-way traffic.

CashWise has not announced a tentative completion date for the project.

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)