Minn. Court Upholds COVID-19 Mask Mandate

On October 2, in the District of Minnesota, the Honorable Patrick J. Schiltz held that a Minnesota Executive Order (EO) mandating masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 did not violate the First Amendment by chilling the ability to engage in protected speech and political assembly despite directly conflicting with a Minnesota state law that allegedly prohibited the same mask-wearing sanctioned by the EO. The judge ruled that the state law should be interpreted in a way to accommodate both the enforcement of the state statute and the EO. 

Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota issued EO 20-81 on July 22, which “requires Minnesotans to wear face coverings while present in indoor businesses and public indoor spaces and while waiting outdoors to enter an indoor business or public indoor space” or else be convicted of a criminal misdemeanor. In direct contrast, Minn. Stat. Sec. 609.735 states that “a person whose identity is concealed by the person in a public place by means of a…mask…is guilty of a misdemeanor.” The plaintiff, Minnesota Voters Alliance, sued to enjoin the enforcement of the EO on grounds it was unconstitutional given that the sections at issue were in conflict. 

The results of these conflicting sections, argued the plaintiff, means that “they are chilled from engaging in political activities that are protected by the First Amendment, such as voting in person, campaigning in public, and associating with others in indoor settings” Theretofore, the plaintiff held, the court should grant a preliminary injunction to prohibit the enforcement of the EO or else the plaintiff, among other things, would specifically be suffering the irreparable harm of being prohibited from voting in the 2020 election. 

The district judge summarily denied the plaintiff’s request for injunctive relief, arguing that while Minn. Stat. Sec. 609.735 lacked an explicit requirement that violation of the statute required “intent to conceal one’s identity,” rules of statutory interpretation necessitated the imputation of such intent for otherwise “the statute would lead to absurd results.” For example, the court noted, “(a) construction worker could not wear a dust mask while remodeling a public space, a government official could not wear a hazmat suit while cleaning up a chemical spill in a public place, an emergency medical technician could not wear a surgical mask while tending to a person injured on a public road, and a nail artist could not wear a mask while giving a manicure.”

In conclusion, the court ruled that given that the statute, as interpreted, “does not make it unlawful to wear…masks…(but) unlawful to wear disguises” and that as masks worn under the EO to prevent the spread of COVID-19 do not disguise a person, the EO remains enforceable as written and passes constitutional muster under the First Amendment. Therefore, the court ultimately held that the plaintiff’s preliminary injunction shall be denied as injunctive relief required clear proof of irreparable harm and no such harm existed in this case as compliance with the EO can never result in criminal punishment under Minn. Stat. Sec. 609.735. 

The plaintiff has appealed the ruling to the 8th Circuit and filed a motion to stay the EO’s enforcement until such time as the 8th Circuit has ruled on the district court’s denial of the preliminary injunction.