Mask rules differ on each end of Minnesota’s Capitol

Published 4:53 pm Thursday, January 7, 2021

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By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

Minnesota lawmakers will be under different face-covering requirements during the legislative session.

The Democratic-led House approved a rule this week requiring masks be worn by at the Capitol or around other people while conducting legislative business. Violations can result in ethics referrals for lawmakers or discipline for staff.

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But the Republican-led Senate won’t follow suit. A mask mandate didn’t succeed Thursday after a majority decided on a 36-31 vote that an encouragement would suffice.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he sent a letter to colleagues urging them to wear masks when around the building, as he said he does except when speaking on the floor. He said he’s trying to accommodate lawmakers who are willing to wear masks and those who won’t.

“Part of it is simply respecting those that may have a different point of view,” Gazelka said. “But frankly the further you get out into Minnesota, you do have a different attitude. People don’t view it the same.”

Minnesota has a mask requirement for indoor public spaces, such as offices and retail businesses. But DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s directive does not apply to the Legislature due to separation of powers.

Lawmakers are permitted to vote remotely under special coronavirus rules but they can’t speak in debates. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said letting some lawmakers skip masks fails to create a safe environment for all lawmakers.

“I’d like them to talk to some of the colleagues who are scared to come here because they know people are not wearing masks. I’d like to have them talk to people who have been stricken with COVID,” Marty said. “We’ve lost one of our colleagues to that. Out of 67 members, we’ve lost one.”

Several Republican legislators, including Gazelka, contracted COVID-19 after a party gathering in November. One, then-Sen. Jerry Relph of St. Cloud, died after spending weeks hospitalized.

Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, was among eight lawmakers who came into the chamber and took their oath on Tuesday without a mask. He said he normally wears one in public, and he argues mandates are counterproductive because people resist being told what to do.

“People were on it and doing the right thing from the beginning,” Mathews said. “Masks were not the problem; mask mandates became the problem.”

First-term Sen. Ann Johnson Stewart, DFL-Plymouth, put a mask mandate on par with rules regarding appropriate attire for lawmakers on the Senate floor, noting she would be stopped from attending in a bathrobe or bathing suit.

“I am happy to wear a mask. I am happy to wear a suit coat. And I am happy not to wear a swimming suit frankly,” she said. “But I will do it if challenged.”