As Gov. Tim Walz’s statewide mask mandate went into effect Saturday, businesses and law enforcement in the region were making plans to accommodate it.

According to the mandate, which Walz announced during a press conference July 22, Minnesotans must wear a mask in indoor public places. The goal, Walz said, is to slow the spread of coronavirus. As of Thursday, 31 states and the District of Columbia require that most people cover their faces when out in public.

“Minnesota, we can do this,” Walz said during the press conference, calling it one of the easiest ways to slow the spread of COVID-19. “This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain.”

There are some exceptions to the mandate. Children younger than 5 are exempt from the mandate, as are people with disabilities, or physical or mental health issues that make wearing a mask problematic. In these cases, people are encouraged to wear a face shield.

Masks will be required in places such as schools, businesses, offices and restaurants. They’re also needed in outdoor situations when social distancing of at least 6 feet is not possible. Masks are not required for people outdoors doing activities such as walking their dog or mowing their yard.

While refusing to wear a mask is a petty misdemeanor punishable by a fine of no more than $100, Walz said it is technically not a crime, and he hoped Minnesotans would comply with the order voluntarily.

Litchfield Police Chief Patrick Fank said his officers will take an “educate, not enforce” approach to the executive order, encouraging people to contact state authorities with complaints about non-compliance.

“Let’s be honest,” Fank said, “there’s already a negative spin toward law enforcement. The last thing we want to be is enforcement of (a mandate) that is not very popular with some people.”

While the statewide mask mandate is new, many businesses already had mask mandates of their own.

Fank said his department has not received any official complaints about violations of any of the governor’s other executive orders in regard to the coronavirus.

“People aren’t calling them in,” Fank said. “We are very, very hands off with the governor’s orders. And I don’t know that we’ve received one complaint (about) social distancing.”

Litchfield officers carry informational sheets they can hand out with resources for people to call if they are concerned about violations.

“Officers are a little leery about getting into controversial situations anyway, and this is one of those tough ones,” Fank said. “I just hope things are back to normal soon.”

MASKS FOR BUSINESSES

As part of the statewide mandate, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is distributing 4.1 million masks to local chambers of commerce in each county. The masks are a one-time shipment to be given to area businesses to provide to customers who may not have one.

Judy Hulterstrum, executive director of Litchfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said her office expected to receive 10,000 masks from DEED, though they had not yet arrived by the end of last week. She said she appreciated the mask distribution, but said the shipment would likely not last long, as it will be shared with businesses throughout the county.

“I haven’t been able to do something for business since February,” Hulterstrum said. “This is something we can do. This is our chance to be able to do good for our community.”

Hulterstrum said her office would be working with Meeker County Administrator Paul Virnig and with the Meeker County Economic Development Authority to come up with a mask distribution plan.

“The main purpose is for businesses that have the public coming in — retail, service, restaurants, those type of businesses — if someone comes in and does not have a mask, the owner, manager, whomever sees them first is to gently encourage them to wear a mask,” Hulterstrum said. “It’s really, people are encouraged to wear it, kind of like the governor said with police and sheriff’s departments … what they want them to do is hand them a mask rather than a ticket.”

Though the mask mandate might not be popular with some, Hulterstrum said, many of the business owners and managers she has spoken to see it as a defense against am even less-palatable approach.

“What I have heard from businesses is that, ‘I don’t want to shut down again. I guess we’re going to have to do it this way,’” Hulterstrum said. “The businesses are, I think, at this point, in tune.”

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