RIVER FALLS — Going out? The city formally recommends wearing a mask.

River Falls City Council on Tuesday, July 28, voted to approve a resolution recommending the use of masks or other face coverings while out in public. The move is seen as furthering the city’s pandemic response efforts, but stops short of requiring mask use through a stricter — and potentially legally dubious — ordinance.

The resolution makes clear the city is authorized to enforce trespassing statutes and other ordinances if individuals refuse to comply with a business owner’s mask policy. It also allows staff and money resources to be used on education campaigns promoting the use of face coverings, something the city had avoided without specific direction from City Council, according to a staff report.

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There are many ways to achieve the goal of residents wearing masks, Council member Diane Odeen said. “And one of the best is just education and, frankly, peer pressure.”

Odeen successfully forwarded a series of amendments to the resolution stating the importance of masks for local health and the River Falls economy, as well as requiring the city to review the resolution at council meetings in August and then at least monthly going forward.

Council members said they received mixed comments about masks leading up to the meeting. Several residents also spoke mostly in favor of widespread mask use over roughly 20 minutes of public comments.

University of Wisconsin-River Falls Interim Chancellor Connie Foster appeared remotely to voice support for the resolution and state the university’s commitment to safety when students return to campus for the fall semester.

“We hope the businesses in town who benefit from our student and employee customer base will enforce policies and procedures consistent with what is found on campus, such as requiring face masks,” Foster said.

Council member Sean Downing said he supports a more rigorous citywide mask ordinance, especially with college students and business patrons coming in from the Twin Cities.

Council member Ben Plunkett added that the resolution includes too many exemptions to mask wearing. He forwarded an amendment to reduce the list, but the motion failed 5-2.

A Change.org petition calling for a mask mandate for River Falls businesses had over 2,100 signatures as of the start of the meeting, but it was unclear how many were from River Falls residents.

‘Strongly encourage’

The recommendation applies to residents, visitors and anyone working in River Falls. Its stated purpose is to educate and encourage the use of face coverings when distancing of six feet can’t be maintained.

Exempt from the resolution are:

  • Children age 2 and under
  • Children age 12 and under unless supervised to avoid misuse
  • Anyone with a physical disability that prevents easily wearing or removing a mask
  • Anyone who is deaf or uses facial or mouth movements as part of communication
  • Anyone advised by a medical professional that wearing a mask poses a health risk
  • Anyone with trouble breathing or who is unconscious, incapacitated or unable to remove a face covering without help
  • When a law prohibits wearing a mask or when necessary to verify an individual’s identity
  • Anyone exercising (while also maintaining distancing)
  • When eating or drinking
  • When religious beliefs prevent wearing a face covering

Though masks were not encouraged by health officials early in the pandemic over concerns it would lead to shortages for health care workers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks are a “critical tool” to control the spread of COVID-19. It is believed the coronavirus is spread through close contact and respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued a statewide mask mandate that went into effect July 25.

Threats, bullying

The agenda item Tuesday also brought to light contentious online conversations involving Council member Plunkett.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Plunkett said he had received threatening messages online about his strong stance in support of face coverings. Two residents then alleged Plunkett used bullying and intimidating language directed at citizens and business owners.

Mayor Dan Toland said the council was aware of Plunkett’s comments and suggested the residents submit a formal complaint with the city.