Walz: Mask mandate, not business closures, will slow hospitalization increase

Gov. Tim Walz said the state's mask mandate would be enough to slow a worrisome rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations without imposing new restrictions on businesses.

Walz made the comments after touring Liberty Packaging, a Brooklyn Park company storing thousands of masks that the state is distributing to business owners to ease the burden of the new mandate. 

Walz's comments are in stark contrast to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who decided Wednesday to close indoor spaces at all bars within the city to slow the virus outbreak.

"We’re not looking at a statewide rollback at this point in time," Walz said, "but we always look at those numbers move. I would tell Minnesotans, we are kind of teetering on that edge."

As of Wednesday morning, 310 Minnesotans are hospitalized with the coronavirus, the most since late June. Of the cases, 143 are in the intensive care unit. Both numbers are still much lower than during their May peak.

The state's positivity rate -- the percentage of tests that come back positive for the virus -- has ticked up to 5 percent in recent weeks. It had been as low as 3 percent in June.

Walz's tour was highly orchestrated by Twin Cities business groups, which have come out in favor of the mask mandate.

"This is absolutely welcomed by business owners," Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jonathan Weinhagen said. "What we know right now is business owners want to see the economy reopen, they want to stay open, and they don’t want to turn away a single customer. These masks are going to allow them to do that."

Minnesota officials have promised to distribute 4 million masks to businesses statewide. Walz said about 1 million had already been distributed as of Wednesday.

The mask mandate has sparked resistance in some areas of the state. This weekend, mask resisters in Marshall wore swastikas on their face coverings into a Walmart store. A Wabasha County Republican party official resigned after making a Facebook post comparing the mask mandate to the Holocaust.

Walz said it "doesn't make sense" to protest the mask mandate because face coverings don't take away a person's liberties or hurt businesses.

"If you really need to do something to express how mad you are, wear your mask and go register people to vote against me," Walz said. "At least wear the damn mask."

The Minnesota Hospital Association said the state's hospitals have 1,224 staffed intensive-care beds that were 85 percent full this week. Roughly 17 percent of the beds are filled by patients with coronavirus, said Mary Krinkie, the association's government affairs representative.

During a virtual hearing with the Senate Health committee, Krinkie expressed confidence. Some 943 beds could be made available within 72 hours, she said.

"We do not believe there is a shortage of ICU beds statewide," Krinkie told senators. "We believe we can handle a potential surge, but that would depend on how bad the surge was and...if we can get the necessary staffing."

More troubling is the turnaround time for tests. Rural hospitals are reporting that it takes between five and eight days to get a test back from the lab because of a shortage of reagents, Krinkie said.

"It’s been a marathon. I just wish I knew what mile marker we were on," she said.