Walz hedges on mask mandate amid concerns over 'mask police'

Gov. Tim Walz hedged this week when asked if he would impose a statewide mask requirement in Minnesota, saying he didn't want to turn business owners into the "mask police."

Thousands of Minnesota bars, restaurants and stores have reopened in the past month as Walz has loosened some coronavirus restrictions. The state's infection rate has ticked upward in the past two weeks, though it has not spiked like other states have seen.

"The social compact of people agreeing to do it is important," Walz told reporters. "But I also think, and I worry about this from the business perspective, they end up being the mask police because it’s not clearly defined across the state."

Walz did not lay out a timeline for a decision on a statewide mandate.

The U.S. shattered a daily record for coronavirus cases on Thursday, with 54,357 new cases. That's nearly 10,000 more new cases than the previous record, which came just last week.

Cases are soaring across the South and West, with states like California, Arizona, Texas and Florida leading the pack. Some of the states now seeing spikes were among the first to reopen their economies, and some governors have quickly shuttered bars and placed new restrictions on public gatherings in an attempt to regain control.

Minnesota's infection rate -- the percentage of positive tests compared with the overall number of tests -- has increased slightly to 3.7 percent, Walz said this week.

Industry groups Hospitality Minnesota, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild are pleading with workers and customers to wear masks. Many bar and restaurant owners, eyeing the situation in other states, have said they cannot afford to be shut down again because of another outbreak.

When FOX 9 asked Thursday about a statewide mask mandate, none of the groups said they were calling on Walz to impose one.

"Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association is not wanting the governor to impose a mask mandate statewide," said Leslie Rosedahl, a spokeswoman.

Many of Minnesota's craft brewers are already requiring customers to wear masks even without a state mandate, Guild executive director Lauren Bennett McGinty said.

"However, if customers do not follow those rules and if another outbreak occurs, the governor has made it clear that he will mandate the wearing of masks. We would not oppose that mandate," she said in an email.

Ben Wogsland, government relations director at Hospitality Minnesota, said his members had concerns about whether workers would have to enforce a mandate.

"We're really hoping people step up and do the right thing (by wearing a mask on their own)," Wogsland said in a telephone interview.

Wearing a mask has become a political issue, but consensus appears to be forming. This week, Vice President Mike Pence -- who violated Mayo Clinic's policy by declining to wear a mask in the facility this spring -- said it was important to wear a mask, though President Donald Trump has almost always gone without one.

A resurgence in coronavirus cases threatens to halt the economic rebound. The U.S. added an estimated 4.8 million jobs in June as states reopened their economies, cutting the nationwide unemployment rate to 11.1 percent.

The jobless rate stood at 14.7 percent in April, at the nadir of the economic crisis. It was 3.5 percent in February, before the pandemic took off.

Economists urged caution about the newly reported job gains because the survey was done the week of June 8, before the latest spike in cases.