Story published: July 29, 2020

For weeks, Forager Brewery, a popular business in Rochester, Minn., had been able to beat the odds. Owner Annie Henderson said on the business’s Facebook page that it was with pride that the taproom and restaurant had been able to stay open, keeping its 32 full-time staff with a paycheck through the difficult months sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

But two weeks ago, it closed.

“This is the first time we have [had] to close our doors for two weeks and not do anything at all other than just wait. And hope that no one was exposed and no one else ends up with COVID-19,” she said, wearing a mask.

One of her part-time employees had come down with COVID-19. And Henderson wasn’t taking any chances.

“So we decided we’ll be closing for the next couple of weeks. The person who tested positive is a part-time employee and hardly worked at all since being exposed,” she said. “I just want to tell people how important it is to wear a mask, [it] makes such a big difference.”

Earlier this month, a cluster of coronavirus infections linked to some downtown bars alarmed city leaders. The Rochester City Council decided 6-1 to pass its own city-wide mask mandate. It took effect July 8.

“This is Med City, we are America’s city for health,” said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton. “We should be the poster child for the cleanest, safest environment,” she continued about her early support of a local mandate.

By most accounts, the mandate encouraged more mask usage. The city mandate was created off of the Governor’s emergency executive powers. In Rochester, individual violators were not penalized, but could be charged with trespassing if they continued to refuse to wear a mask inside a business or city building. The city could revoke a business’s license for non-compliance. Following the order, the number of positive cases fluctuated, though the total case count continued to climb to more than 1,400.

“It’s been night and day downtown,” said Sean Baker, editor of Med City Beat. “During the day you see compliance. But at night, you see busy establishments, no social distancing, no mask wearing, that’s where we’ve seen the cluster of cases [emerge],” he said.

Critics said the policy isolated Rochester from neighboring communities that didn’t have a mask requirement. Angry netizens threatened to take their patronage to other cities to avoid wearing a mask. But last week, Governor Walz diffused that threat by making the mandate statewide. Mayor Norton applauded the decision.

“It would be even easier to have a national policy, but that’s not going to happen when people are so polarized. But some people won’t [wear a mask] because it signals a political viewpoint rather than signals ‘I care about my neighbor’s health,'” she said.

Under the state mandate, employees and customers at retail and other businesses and public places must wear masks indoors. Workers who cannot maintain a six-foot distance from others will be required to wear one too.

“In the long run, this is the quickest, surest way with the least amount of impact, and the key to businesses [staying] open,” Walz said at a press conference.

Rochester City Council President Randy Staver opposed the local order.

“What we’ve really done, is put it on the backs of the businesses. The government has issued a mandate, but it’s up to the businesses to enforce a mandate…They’re already stressed enough and the last thing they want to do is potentially drive customers away,” he said.

Staver said it’s also not clear when the mandate will be lifted.

Nellie’s On 3rd is a downtown bar that had complied with the local mandate, and even went beyond it by offering masks to any customer who found themselves without one. Manager Rick McCoy said he hoped these measures would help make everyone feel safe.

“We’re just trying to do our part to make things better, hopefully everyone sees the same thing so we can get back to normal,” he said.

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Diagnosing and treating patients with the novel coronavirus comes with different challenges for rural and regional healthcare systems located outside major metropolitan areas. One Greater Minnesota reporter Kaomi Goetz interviewed Essentia Health’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Peter Henry to find out more about how rural healthcare providers are getting ready for an influx of coronavirus cases. 

As Minnesotans looks for ways to show their support for healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, we took a look back in time to celebrate the contributions that four women – all named Ruth – made to the state’s public health system.