This is why cities are powerful, because it's so small that you can really make change if you are persistent.

Photo of a sign hanging inside the window of a log building that says masks save lives
Photo by Chris O'Brien

Well, I started reading about people with disabilities, people with developmental disabilities die of Covid at higher [rates…] of any group in the country, including African-American. They're dying at really, really high numbers. And they're getting it at their group homes. And the funny thing is is it's not going out, they're not even allowed to often have any visitors or they can barely go on walks, they're definitely not going to work. People with developmental disabilities also have nothing to do right now because they're so quarantined and yet they're getting Covid. And so I hate to be... They're getting it from the community because they have staff members coming in who, for one reason or another, contracted it without realizing it, right? And then it shows up in the group home and a bunch of people die. And that seems so preventable to me. That it's like... 

I don't wanna demonize. I've been really working on being not too judgmental, 'cause it is really frustrating for me. I know people in the medical field who are much less careful than me and it's very frustrating 'cause it's like, "I honor your service, but why are you not freaking wearing a mask? We're at a cookie store." You know what I mean? Part of your service involves staying healthy in the community. 

And so, the way to enforce that is not through shaming. I think it really has to come from a thing like an ordinance because we're not gonna all agree. We just aren't. There's a very wide range of Minnesotans and Duluthians and unfortunately, even if I think every doctor should not go to a restaurant right now. I'm not going to restaurants, that's for sure. Even if I would like to mandate that all doctors stay home, they're not going to but they could be mandated to wear a mask. And so that's when I started really thinking about, "Okay, the only thing I have control over is trying to advocate for this. I can't control what they do in their free time, even though I wish I could."

And so I wrote a letter, an email to Emily Larson and I sent it. And then I was like, "You know, I think I'm gonna put this public because she's an elected official." It's not... I know it kind of sucks to call people out, but this is... I've tried to approach mayors about other issues in the past and if they say it's not feasible it dies at that meeting. You're like, "I would like to see shoveling in forests." "Well, we don't have the resources." And then it's just over. And that's happened a few different times. And so I was like, "I don't think this can be like a one-and-done conversation." 

So I wrote her a letter and then I published it on Twitter and my Facebook and probably Instagram. And so she had to respond and she wrote, "I will get back to you." And a week later she wrote back and said, "I know you're not gonna like this but there has to be buy-in and I just won't... I'm not going to put in a mask ordinance. And I know that will be disappointing to you." 

So then I wrote a follow-up letter, which I also made public. Which was, "We don't have buy-in on seat-belts or smoking ordinances. They don't need buy-in. This is not a buy-in issue. And this is a real practical way that you can support, not just disabled lives, but Black [and] Indigenous lives, people who are poor, [and] higher-risk individuals. This is a literal concrete way that you can be changing the trajectory and if you don't do it... " 

So I wrote that letter and then I wrote a letter to the editor and they both got... People read them… My mom's good friend Terese got on the city council and I think my letter, she had seen it. And as she was completely brand new, she's like, "Can I call you to talk about why you want a mask ordinance. I just need to know because," she said, "I'm meeting with the Mayor on Friday just to get my lesson on what I need to know, and I would like to bring this topic up." And I was like, "Sure." And so we talked for a while and... On why I thought the buy-in issue wasn't a real one. And then she is so awesome. Terese Tomanek brought it up with as many councilors that would listen. And one of them who originally did not support a mask ordinance, Erik Forsman, originally, he was like, "Good job, Mayor Larson. Yes, you need buy-in." But she talked to him and he was open-minded enough to be like, "Actually, you're right. We do need a mask ordinance. It's a low-cost way to keep the economy on track but also save people's lives." And so they freaking wrote a mask ordinance without the Mayor and then voted on it unanimously and it got done. 

And it was so cool because I was like, "This is why cities are powerful because it's so small that you can really make change if you are persistent." And then also... So then what I did after that, I was like, "Okay, great, but the State needs one too." So then I emailed literally anyone that I thought would maybe have something to do with a State ordinance. So, I emailed every single person at the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Council on disabilities and of course the Governor and the associate Lieutenant Governor.  A couple of other agencies too but... And then I emailed the St. Louis County commissioners and then Duluth Council on Disabilities just to say, "We really need to be speaking up about this." And, I don't know... I don't think I had as [much of] a direct impact on the mask ordinance, but I was able to talk to some people in the State Health Department that were interested in learning more and then they asked me to write a statement about why I supported it as it came out. And so, I feel like at least they were aware that people cared. 

And that was the other thing I learned is that you don't just have to email the top guy or girl. You can email everyone affiliated because a few people will respond. And I also emailed the Senators and the Representatives for the State and the nation. I think it would be best if it was a nationwide mandate but at least now Minnesota has one. I can't say how directly impactful I was on that but for sure the Duluth one, because of the public nature of the letters to Emily Larson that spurred a chain of events that did actually lead to a mask ordinance. So I'm really excited about that 'cause that was like just making me so angry. It was really hard to digest that we would not take such a simple step, as a city.

— Gaelynn Lea Tressler




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