Republicans in the Minnesota Senate on Thursday voted down a proposal that would have required masks at the Capitol during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Melissa Wicklund, DFL-Bloomington, offered an amendment to the proposed temporary rules of Senate that would require members and staff to wear face masks when they're working in the state Capitol complex.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he appreciates "the spirit" of Wicklund's amendment, "except for the fact that it's mandated versus strongly encouraged."
So, Gazelka introduced an amendment to Wicklund's amendment that would "strongly encourage" members and staff to wear face masks, but not require it as Wicklund's would have.
For nearly an hour on Thursday, Democrats argued in favor of the mask mandate, while Republicans questioned the effectiveness of masks, wondered what the punishment would be if a member was caught not wearing one, and what types of material would be allowed.
Eventually, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 36-31 on Gazelka's amendment to Wicklund's amendment that would strongly encourage masks, but not require them.
Because of this, Wicklund withdrew her amendment, saying strongly encouraging a mask isn't a rule.
The Democrat-controlled House has a mask mandate in place as of Wednesday after the Rules Committee approved it, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, tweeted.
Senate mask debate
When introducing her proposal to require masks at the Capitol Complex, Wicklund said requiring people to wear face coverings would mean Senate and staff would be adhering to public health mitigation guidelines and it would make their workplace safer for all to participate in a safe and effective manner.
Some senators haven't attended floor sessions in-person due to the lack of mask-wearing.
"We show to our members, our colleagues, our staff that we all care and have mutual respect for the role each of us play in the Senate," Wicklund said. She added that by putting it in the Senate rules it shows that it's something they all can agree to and abide by.
Gazelka said in Senate guidelines, masks are encouraged because "it probably is helpful." And earlier this week, Gazelka said he put out a letter "strongly encouraging" members to wear a mask to the floor, saying part of it is respecting those "who may have a different point of view."
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said encouraging someone to wear a mask isn't a rule, and called it "outrageous" that some senators refuse to wear masks to protect their colleagues.
Gazelka'ss objection to requiring face masks is not that surprising. When Gov. Tim Walz issued a statewide face mask mandate over the summer, Gazelka said it "feels like a heavy-handed, broad approach" when so many businesses required masks and many Minnesotans already wear them.
He said Thursday that "virtually everybody" is wearing a mask. On Tuesday, the opening day of the session, eight senators – all Republicans – went maskless on the Senate floor.
Gazelka went on to say that people in greater Minnesota have a different attitude toward masks.
"We have to figure out a way to accommodate both of those sides," Gazelka said, adding that what the Senate is doing right now – social distancing and recommending masks – is enough because no one has been infected while doing their job at the Senate that he's aware of.
The Senate GOP Caucus did have a COVID-19 outbreak in November after they gathered in-person to celebrate the 2020 election. One senator who attended the event – Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud – died of COVID-19 complications in December.
After his death, Relph's daughter, Dana Relph, called on Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, to apologize for holding the event that put senators, staff and event center employees at risk.
Gazelka, who also contracted COVID in November and whose mother in law died with virus, said in a statement following the November outbreak that he would use what he learned to inform future decisions ahead of the 2021 legislative session, adding that he is "committed to protecting senators, staff and the people with whom we come in contact."