Marina Lopez poses at her Lucerito’s Fashion shop in Minneapolis on January 6, 2021. She always masks up in public but said she doesn't social distance much because she is vaccinated, previously had COVID-19, and notes how the Omicron variant is milder than previous strains of the virus. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Just hours before a new indoor masking mandate was set to go into effect in Minneapolis late last week, Mohamed Sahal stood inside Karmel Mall, waiting for a haircut. 

Mohamed, 48, had made the trek from St. Cloud for his haircut. As he stood in line, Mohamed wasn’t wearing a mask. Still, he said he supported the current mask mandates—as long as they apply to just unvaccinated people.

“In my opinion, if people are fully vaccinated with either two or three shots, they can stay without it,” he said. “But if people aren’t vaccinated, or they’ve only had one shot, then they’d better wear the mask.” 

As the COVID-19 global pandemic approaches its second anniversary and the Omicron variant has pushed new cases to an all-time high in the U.S., more lax attitudes seem commonplace. The Atlantic magazine noted last month that “outside the world inhabited by the professional and managerial classes in a handful of major metropolitan areas, many, if not most, Americans are leading their lives as if COVID is over, and they have been for a long while.”

The Centers for Disease and Control still recommends universal indoor masking and social distancing for all people living in high transmission areas—which basically encompasses the entire country right now. This is because vaccinated people can still be infected with COVID-19 and transmit the virus, though their chances of being hospitalized from the virus are 17 times less likely than unvaccinated people, according to recent comments from CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul, which had lifted such orders last summer, reinstated indoor masking mandates for most public settings as of 5 p.m. on Jan. 6.

In Minnesota, the positivity rate for new COVID-19 infections recently jumped to an all-time pandemic high at nearly 16 percent. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also on the rise, though intensive care unit patients with COVID-19 have been slowly declining since last month. 

The truth on the ground in the Twin Cities may be more complicated than what The Atlantic article suggested, as several people who spoke to Sahan Journal last week expressed support for the masking mandates, even if they weren’t necessarily following the rules to a T themselves. 

Mohamed was two days removed from receiving a booster shot of the Moderna vaccine. Before getting his first shot, Mohamed said he largely avoided going out in public. After getting vaccinated, that changed. 

He strongly recommends anybody who hasn’t gotten vaccinated to do so. “That is the only way to save yourself and other people around you,” he said. But he didn’t seem to plan on wearing a mask indoors anytime soon. “I don’t believe I need it,” he said. 

About a mile and a half south on Lake Street, Marina Lopez wore a mask inside Mercado Central as she greeted customers at her Lucerito’s Fashion shop, which sells traditional Mexican clothing. She supports the new citywide mask mandate, which includes most indoor settings, mainly because close to 30 percent of Minnesotans eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine are not vaccinated. 

“This is for protecting each other,” Lopez said of masking. “For me, this is very important.”

Still, Lopez said she sometimes takes her mask off in public indoor settings in situations where she feels comfortable doing so. “When I’m walking alone and don’t see too many people around me, I can take it off for a little while,” she said. “But when there’s a lot of people walking around inside, yes, I put it on.”

She also long ago gave up on being vigilant about social distancing from others in public. This is mainly because she’s heard that Omicron causes milder infections for most people, and that those who are vaccinated are less likely to get seriously ill. Lopez was infected during the first year of the pandemic, long before vaccines were available. The virus kept her sick for two weeks. 

“It was worse then,” she said. “But now we have two shots and better protection. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s something.” 

Jesus De La Torre, who operates a traditional massage healing and therapy clinic in south Minneapolis, said the city’s initial indoor mask mandate should not have been lifted last June. “It should be mandated everywhere, every single business,” he said.

Has De La Torre been always masking up whenever he’s inside in public?

“To be honest with you, I don’t wear it,” he said. “I take my risks. If I go to a store and it isn’t required, I don’t wear a mask. It’s my body.” 

De La Torre should be well protected from the virus. In 2020, he was infected with COVID-19 and had no symptoms. He’s also received three shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, the most recent coming two weeks ago. 

With the reinstatement of the mask mandate, however, De La Torre said he plans to start wearing masks indoors again, including at work. He also plans to enforce masking for everyone at his shop. Previously, not all of his customers responded well to wearing masks. But De La Torre said it’s now the best decision for everyone’s safety. 

“I have a lot of people coming in, so it’s just to take care of my customers,” he said. 

The Minneapolis and St. Paul mandates carry penalties for noncompliance. The Minneapolis order, for example, allows the city to prosecute violators for misdemeanors. St. Paul’s mandate says businesses that violate the order could face penalties on their city business licenses. 

But business owners like Ngan Hoang laugh when they’re asked how the city enforces such orders.

“They don’t,” said Hoang, who owns Cali Nails on Lake Street. “Someone would have to snitch on someone. But it’s not that serious. We just work to get that customer out of the door quicker.”

Hoang said she’s never had a problem with masking. She’s been doing so in the salon since her mother opened it in 1994, largely to avoid debris of fingernails hitting her face as she works on customers. She’s worn masks in public settings consistently throughout the pandemic, and kept a sign up in her salon asking customers to mask. Hoang also keeps free masks on hand for customers who don’t have one. 

“I welcome everybody who’s vaccinated and not vaccinated,” she said. “But I do want you to wear a mask.” 

But roughly half of her customers who come to her salon don’t wear masks, and Hoang said she’s not great at enforcing masking.

Sometimes, for example, customers will come in with a doctor’s note saying their health conditions prevent them from being able to mask. Other times, customers will come in maskless, coughing, and say they only have a cold. 

“What do you do at that point?” she said. “I don’t want to turn people away because I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...