Owatonna City Council

Since returning to in-person meetings, the Owatonna City Council has largely elected not to wear face masks during their regular meetings. Though the current executive order mandates that people wear masks in all indoor businesses and indoor public spaces, government meetings is one of the exceptions. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)

It has been three weeks since Executive Order 20-81 was put in place, mandating that face coverings be worn in all indoor businesses and public indoor spaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, when the Steele County commissioners meet every other Tuesday, their faces remain mask-less.

While this has been a surprising for some, Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh said that the Steele County Board of Commissioners, as well as other participants in the bimonthly meetings, is in compliance with the governor’s mandate.

“A lot of effort has been taken into making sure there is enough spacing and stuff like that so that meetings could be held appropriately,” McIntosh said, noting that the social distancing guidelines of 6 feet between individuals is being strictly adhered to at the commissioner meetings. “There are some grey areas in the executive order, but I think the way [the commissioners] are doing it is in compliance.”

As laid out in the executive order, circumstances where mandatory face coverings may be temporarily removed include those who are actively testifying or speaking at governmental meetings subject to the Open Meeting Law. McIntosh said that while this verbiage allows those participating in the meeting to go without masks, anyone attending the meeting but not participating in the discussion aren’t covered by the exemption.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the virus which causes COVID-19 is thought to be spread by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough or sneeze. Health officials say many people with COVID-19 do not show any symptoms but can still spread the virus to others, especially those who have had prolonged close contact with another person. Additionally, people can be contagious before they show symptoms of COVID-19, and MDH officials say wearing a face covering is one of the best ways to help protect people by limiting the spread of respiratory droplets, specifically in situations where social distancing is hard to maintain.

The commissioners are not alone in their choice to not wear masks during their meetings. On the opposite Tuesdays, the much larger Owatonna City Council gathers in the much larger council chambers at West Hills for its regular meetings, opting out of wearing face coverings and prioritizing social distancing.

“I feel very safe in the council chambers,” said Mayor Tom Kuntz, who can always be seen in public wearing a mask, but occasional elects to remove it during council meetings. “When you’re together a lot of the time like we are, I think it’s a little bit easier to trust that you’re all making good choices compared to if you go to a wedding that has 40 random people at it and who knows what they have been up to.”

Kuntz said that city staff put in a lot of time and effort to ensure that every council member, staff member and audience member are safely separated during each meetings. One of the lengths that the city has gone to in order to meet appropriate social distancing guidelines is bringing in additional tables placed in the back of the chambers for staff and some council members to sit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least a 6-foot gap between individuals, while the World Health Organization earlier this year recommended only half that distance, but the novel coronavirus continues to leave questions up in the air on what exactly is the “safe” distance. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that COVID-19 can live in the air as long as three hours if conditions are right, while another study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in late March found that respiratory droplets produced when someone coughs or sneezes can travel up to 27 feet.

Kuntz said that there hasn’t been a lot of discussion amongst the council as to whether they should considering wearing masks during the meetings, but feels they are doing a good job in giving everyone in the council chambers ample social distance. Most importantly to him, however, is the fact that they can all meet together again after months of partially virtual meetings.

“I think that the whole virtual process is maybe going to be considered helpful going into the future, not just for government but for business and schools,” Kuntz said. “It does need to be enhanced and worked upon, but there is a place for it as well as a place where you have to have everyone together to try to run an organization.”

Perhaps the biggest hassle Kuntz said the council ran into during its virtual meetings was the roll call vote that had to be placed for every motion versus a majority vote that could be taken in person. Kuntz said being in person also allows for better overall communication, let alone assuring that everyone is clearly heard and not disconnected.

Aside from the meetings, however, Kuntz said he takes his role as mayor very seriously in the sense of setting a good example to encourage Owatonna to mask up and keep one another safe.

“If the mayor isn’t setting an example, who is?” Kuntz said. “My wife and I are on the same page and we wear a mask everywhere we go — not only for own protection, but for your protection, too.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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