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Duluth has become the first non-metro city to bring back a face mask mandate in response to surging cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Mayor Emily Larson announced Thursday that a 30-day citywide mask mandate will go into effect starting 5 p.m. on Friday.

It will require face masks to be worn by all aged 5 and over in indoor public spaces. The mandate is scheduled to come to an end at 5 p.m. on Feb. 12.

People are allowed to remove their masks when they are "actively eating and drinking." Exemptions are available for education and childcare facilities and fitness businesses that have written plans and are otherwise in compliance with state guidelines.

This won't exempt Duluth Public Schools however, as the district has already enacted its own mask requirement for the 2021-22 school year.

At the press conference announcing the mandate, Larson said of those likely to criticize her for the mandate: "If you want to be mad at me, be mad at me. That’s what I’m here for. It’s still the right decision."

The Duluth City Council on Monday decided against approving an emergency mask mandate, which required a unanimous vote, but did agree to confer emergency powers to Mayor Larson, which she employed on Thursday.

It follows similar measures taken last week by Minneapolis and St. Paul, and followed by several other metro cities including Golden Valley and Hopkins. Minneapolis and St. Paul on Wednesday also announced that they will be requiring vaccination proof or proof of a negative COVID test to dine in city restaurants starting from Jan. 19.

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While cases are rising in every county statewide thanks to the highly transmissible omicron variant, the highest rates of COVID are currently in the Twin Cities metro and in southeastern Minnesota.

This is not unusual for the pandemic, with the spikes in both the alpha variant in winter 2020 and the delta variant in summer 2021 initially presenting in the more densely-populated Olmsted County and the Twin Cities, before spreading into greater Minnesota.

If the spread of omicron mimics that of previous variants, it's possible that the likes of St. Louis County and other counties in the west and north of the state will see even larger spikes in the coming weeks.

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