ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - Gov. Tim Walz and a federal judge gave a one-two punch to critics of Minnesota's mask mandate on Wednesday, with both men signaling that the requirement was here to stay.
First, a skeptical U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Schiltz rejected a series of arguments made by conservatives who have sued arguing the mandate is unconstitutional. Schiltz did not make an immediate ruling but said he was leaning toward letting the mandate stand.
Hours later, Walz said the mask requirement was likely to stay until the coronavirus pandemic is over. Cases and hospitalizations spiked in Minnesota in recent days, though deaths have remained relatively low.
"I've got to be honest with you, I would assume that one of the last things we’ll do is lose the masks," Walz told reporters in Minneapolis.
Walz declined to give a timeline for removing the mandate, citing the pandemic's uncertainty.
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Earlier, Schiltz presided over a three-hour hearing conducted over Zoom and often sparred with Erick Kaardal, the lawyer representing opponents of the mask mandate who sued Walz, other statewide officials and county prosecutors. Schiltz was appointed to the federal bench in 2005 by President George W. Bush.
In one exchange, Schiltz said people are free to protest the mandate in many ways, including speaking out or writing criticisms on their masks. Violating the mandate isn't one of those acceptable protests, he said.
Kaardal argued violating the mandate is "not a big deal, judge. It's just a protest. People get to protest."
“People who are vulnerable to COVID might think it’s a bigger deal than you do," Schiltz retorted. The judge said it's "not the most noble of lawsuits."
Schiltz also rejected a claim promoted by some conservatives that following Minnesota's mask mandate requires people to break a state law prohibiting them, with some exceptions, from concealing their identity in public.
“You’re saying things for which there’s no evidence whatsoever,” Schiltz told Kaardal, pointing to carpenters, emergency responders, hazardous materials workers and others who regularly cover their face on the job to protect themselves from hazards.
"My word, your honor," an exasperated Kaardal said as Schiltz spoke.
Walz imposed the mask mandate on July 25 in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus in Minnesota.