Minneapolis and St. Paul are reinstating indoor mask mandates, with mayors from both cities citing a rise in COVID-19 cases from the fast-spreading omicron variant.

Both mandates take effect 5 p.m. Thursday. Minneapolis’ order requires face coverings in “any indoor locations where members of the public may gather, visit or patronize,” while St. Paul’s applies to businesses licensed by the city “at all times when social distancing of at least 6 feet is not maintained” except when eating or drinking.

“We have to keep our city healthy and moving. Wearing a mask is an obvious next step to do both,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said in a news release Wednesday. “The surging numbers of cases and hospitalizations from the Omicron variant demand immediate action to keep our residents healthy while making every effort to allow schools and businesses to remain safe and open across our Twin Cities.”

After imposing face covering requirements at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, both mayors rescinded their mask mandates in June, as cases fell and vaccinations reached a larger share of the population.

Minneapolis and St. Paul started again requiring face coverings in city-controlled buildings in August as the delta variant fueled an increase in cases.

“Reinstating the masking requirement is an important step in keeping our communities safe amid the surge of COVID-19 cases in St. Paul,” Mayor Melvin Carter said in a written statement. “This, alongside our work to ensure St. Paul residents have the tools and access they need to get vaccinated are paramount to recovering from this pandemic and building toward our future.”

Since July, COVID-19 cases have trended upward In Minneapolis, with the community transmission exceeding 900 cases per 100,000 people, putting the city in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) high-risk area category.

Ramsey County is reporting more than 500 new cases per 100,000 people per day and is also considered a high-transmission area by the CDC, according to St. Paul’s news release.

Now, the highly contagious omicron variant accounts for nearly 70% of the cases in Minnesota, with 4.3% of all new COVID-19 cases reported in the last period of Nov. 28 being among fully vaccinated people ages 12 and up, according to Minneapolis officials.

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he is not instituting a statewide mask mandate, but encouraged people to wear masks indoors.

“Even if we tried to do that, I’m not sure that folks would comply to the level we needed to,” he said of a mandated approach, noting that local governments want to be included in such decisions.

The governor applauded the move by Minneapolis and St. Paul, and said he expects several other jurisdictions may follow their lead.

“I certainly support them in their move. These are folks that know their community, they know what needs to be done. We know that masking is one of the big three that makes a difference in this, along with testing and vaccinations,” Walz said.

Business leaders have worried that a patchwork of local laws can be confusing and difficult to enforce.

“We’re concerned about the spike in COVID cases, as the longer the pandemic goes the worse it is for everyone in our community,” B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber, said in a statement Wednesday. “That being said, another mandate puts the burden of enforcement on businesses and their front-line workers. We’re also concerned about the competitive disadvantage that comes with having different rules for different communities. We hope that individuals will be as responsible as possible to protect themselves and others.”

Minneapolis said it will continue to provide masks to businesses and organizations at no cost.

Institutions subject to the mask mandate in Minneapolis include retail stores, government buildings, stadiums, convention centers, and service establishments as well as educational institutions, recreational facilities, and service centers.

Both cities will exempt young children (specified in Minneapolis as those under the age of two) and those with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks. The Minneapolis mandate also exempts athletes, performers, and their support staff who are competing or performing in indoor spaces.

A violation of the mask mandate could result in a warning letter, a citation or misdemeanor prosecution. Businesses violating St. Paul’s order could also face adverse licensing actions or penalties.

Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.

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