Spring rain

Peter Vang and Tanaya Walker Vang of Shoreview take shelter from the rain May 17 after shopping at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday issued a new rule requiring people to wear masks or face coverings in public indoor spaces in Minnesota. (Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News file)

After calls from public health officials and several days of signaling support for a statewide mask order, Gov. Tim Walz Wednesday finally issued a rule requiring people to wear masks or face coverings in public indoor spaces in Minnesota.

More than half of U.S. states have issued similar mandates. So have most major Minnesota cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud.

In announcing his decision, Walz said Minnesota’s business and health care communities both supported a statewide mask order.

But Republicans in the Legislature have not supported a statewide requirement. Walz had delayed issuing an executive order requiring masks, first trying to get legislative buy-in from GOP leaders.

Here’s what you need to know about the mandate and how face coverings help to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Where am I required to wear a mask?

People in Minnesota are required to wear a face covering in all public indoor spaces and businesses, unless they are alone. This includes when waiting outside to enter an indoor public space.

Masks are also required on public transportation, including buses and trains, and in taxis or vehicles that are used for a business purpose.

Additionally, workers are required to wear a face covering when working outdoors in situations in which social distancing cannot be maintained.

You’re also required to wear a mask when at a business, either indoors or outdoors, that requires face coverings.

When does the order go into effect?

The mask requirement begins at midnight Friday, July 24 — so, effectively, Saturday morning, July 25.

It is set to remain in effect until the state’s peacetime emergency ends.

Do masks actually do any good?

Yes! Studies have shown that masks limit the spread of the coronavirus by blocking respiratory droplets that can travel through the air when someone coughs, sneezes or even just speaks. There’s also strong evidence to suggest that masks help protect others from catching the virus from the person wearing the mask.

When you talk, “things are coming out of your mouth. They’re coming out fast,” explains Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies the airborne transmission of viruses. “They’re going to slam into the cloth mask. I think even a low-quality mask can block a lot of those droplets.”

Requiring all people to wear masks — not just those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms — can be especially important in slowing the spread of the virus, because research has demonstrated that asymptomatic people can spread it unknowingly.

Scientists recently compiled data from across the world, comparing the spread of COVID-19 in countries that mandate masks to the spread of the disease in those that don’t. They estimate that if 95 percent of people wear cotton masks when interacting with others, coronavirus spread would decrease by 30 percent.

In the United States, those researchers estimate that level of mask-wearing could save 40,000 lives by Nov. 1.

Other models have also forecast that widespread mask-wearing could prevent tens of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S.

Who does my mask protect?

Public health officials have continually stressed that the main purpose for wearing a mask is to lower the chances that the wearer will spread the coronavirus to others.

That’s why it’s important to wear a mask even if you’re not feeling sick, because you can shed the virus from your nose and mouth even when you feel fine.

In fact, recent research suggests that people who have COVID-19 are most infectious soon after they are infected with the coronavirus — before they even start to feel sick.

But a growing body of evidence suggests that masks also protect the wearer from the virus.

Research shows that if you’re exposed to the virus, wearing a mask can drastically reduce the amount of the virus that gets into your body. And the less virus that gets into your system, the less likely you are to get sick.

Furthermore, if you do get sick, a more limited exposure often results in what’s called an asymptomatic infection — in which you don’t have any symptoms — or a very mild infection.

Weren’t health experts warning against wearing masks, early on?

Some were — and the way the way the guidance around mask-wearing has evolved shows just how complicated the fight against COVID-19 has been.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it wasn’t yet clear how effective masks would be in preventing community spread. That prompted health officials to discourage buying up masks, so that the critical personal protective equipment could be reserved for health care workers.

That early messaging has led to a lot of confusion about the benefits of wearing masks.

But now that we know more about the ease with which the virus is transmitted, it’s clear that even a homemade cloth mask is helpful, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said recently.

Are there exceptions to the statewide mask rule?

Yes. Children under age 2 are not required to wear face masks — and health officials advise against face coverings for babies and young toddlers, in general.

Children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old are not required to wear masks, but are encouraged to wear them when in public.

People who have health conditions, disabilities or behavioral needs that make it difficult to safely wear a mask are exempted from the rule.

There are also exceptions for people who are unable to remove a mask without assistance, and for any person who has trouble breathing.

In addition, the mandate does not apply to private indoor spaces, including homes, or hotel rooms.

There are also lots of situations in which you are allowed to temporarily remove your mask, including:

• when eating or drinking (provided you can maintain 6 feet of social distance from other people);

• when you have to show your ID at a bar or to enter an event;

• when swimming;

• when communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing;

• or when visiting the dentist.

You’re also allowed to take off your mask in many different indoor settings, as long as adequate social distancing can be maintained — including:

• in offices and other work spaces;

• while playing organized sports;

• when taking part in indoor physical exercise, such as in a gym or fitness center;

• and when speaking or performing in settings including theaters, news conferences, lectures, concerts and courtroom proceedings.

What if my city has already put a mask order in place?

This statewide order supersedes your city’s order, unless your city has imposed stricter requirements. Walz’s order does allow for cities to impose stricter mask requirements than the state.

For example, several cities, including Minneapolis and Rochester, require children older than 2 to wear a mask.

The statewide order encourages children between ages 2 and 5 to wear masks, but it doesn’t require it.

What are businesses required to do to make sure customers wear masks?

Businesses must require their employees and customers to wear masks, and must take reasonable steps to enforce that requirement.

Business owners must also communicate to workers and customers about their mask requirement. At a minimum, they have to post at least one visible sign instructing people that face coverings are required.

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said that businesses are being asked to treat customers who refuse to wear a mask in the same way they’d treat any challenging customer.

Best practices, he said, include offering customers masks; requesting that they leave if they refuse to wear a mask; offering alternatives, including curbside pick-up; if necessary, calling law enforcement.

“We don’t want businesses to feel like they’re the mask police,” Grove said. “We don’t want physical altercations.”

Businesses are not expected to enforce the mask requirement when it is unsafe to do so. They’re also not allowed to physically remove workers or customers who refuse to comply.

“I want to hand out masks, not tickets,” said Walz “It’s not a crime to not wear a mask — I would argue it’s not very neighborly. We’re trying to educate and get people to buy into this.”

How will the state enforce the mask requirement?

State officials say they expect businesses and individuals to voluntarily comply with the mask requirement. They say enforcement is not the goal; rather, the goal of the order is to advise Minnesotans that wearing a mask will protect them and their friends and family.

However, people who don’t comply with the requirement can receive a petty misdemeanor citation and a fine of up to $100.

Businesses may be subject to criminal charges, civil fines up to $25,000, and government action to regulate the business.

Are there any health risks to wearing a mask?

For most people, no. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does warn that children under 2, or people who are unable to remove the masks themselves, should not wear them.

For everyone else, masks can be worn safely, medical professionals say. While it may feel harder to breathe, especially on hot and humid days, wearing a cloth face covering doesn’t meaningfully decrease your oxygen intake.

Rumors have spread online that suggest prolonged use of masks can cause health issues like asthma or hypoxia. There is no evidence supporting these claims. Nor is there evidence supporting rumors that wearing a mask can cause you to breathe in too much carbon dioxide, or lead to bacterial lung infections.

If you have a medical condition already that affects your breathing, health experts recommend talking to your doctor about whether a face mask could cause additional problems.

What kind of mask should I wear?

Dr. Michael Bess, vice president of health care strategies for UnitedHealthcare, recently offered some recommendations:

Leave the N95 medical-grade masks for people who need them the most, such as health care workers and first responders.

Disposable masks generally aren’t effective, although they are better than wearing nothing.

Make or buy reusable, multi-layered cloth masks.

Machine-wash your mask after every use.

To be effective, your mask needs to cover your face from the bridge of your nose, over your mouth and below your chin.

Make sure the mask is comfortable so you won’t feel the urge to adjust it.

Where can I find — or how can I make — a mask?

If you spend time on social media, chances are good that you’ve seen ads for buying masks — and the cloth versions are available in many places online.

Clothing retailers — from national chains to local designers — have also turned some of their attention to making masks, as have local makers and artists.

Some businesses also offer disposable masks for their customers to wear when they enter.

© 2020 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved.

Load comments