An Open Letter to the Duluth Mayor (and Mayors Everywhere) about COVID-19

Hello Mayor Larson!

I hope this email finds you well and healthy. This is the musician & Disability Rights advocate Gaelynn Lea, a lifelong Duluth resident. I’d like to schedule a meeting with you if possible to discuss the idea of making mask-wearing in public required in Duluth. I know you are already supportive of normalizing masks, and I appreciate you speaking up on MPR News.

And while speaking up is important, you are in the unique position in Duluth where you could actually be doing more than just normalizing masks – you could be making them required outside the home.

This is an issue that affects Duluth directly. At least one person at Superior View Apartments has already died of COVID-19, and only after that death did the apartment start requiring staff to wear masks even if their clients didn’t seem sick. A more comprehensive mask-wearing policy from the City of Duluth may have prevented this death, because masks would already have been the norm at work, regardless if clients were showing symptoms.

I am asking you to consider this measure, because I am really upset with the apathy I’m seeing around me about the impact of COVID-19 on disabled and older people… It’s as though we are expendable. Not only are we more likely to die from COVID-19 in nursing homes, but people with intellectual disabilities and autism are more likely to contract and die of COVID-19 than ANY OTHER GROUP in America.  This should be a source of outrage – leaders and policy-makers should be calling for change at the top of their lungs – and yet the Duluth public is still only being told that “mask wearing is encouraged”. That’s just not good enough. Mask-wearing needs to be required, or else we are failing to honor or respect the lives of its disabled and older citizens.

And the part that really troubles me is that basically the only solid answer society offers is increasing isolation for disabled and elderly people as a mean of prevention. Leaders all over the country are extending stay-at-home orders for high-risk citizens as its businesses and social gathering places are re-opening. “If you’re a senior citizen or someone with underlying health conditions, you should not go to the restaurants. It’s just that simple.” Well it’s NOT that simple, because I believe asking disabled people to A) Die or B) Completely relinquish their liberty indefinitely is a terrible set of choices… especially when studies show that universal mask-wearing could essentially STOP the spread of COVID.

Universal, mandatory mask-wearing would not only save tens of thousands of lives, but it would also allow millions of disabled and elderly people to gradually re-integrate into the public sphere with less risk. But as it stands, every time I go outside in Duluth, I am practically the only one wearing a mask! It’s infuriating to not see more masks out in public in the city I love and call home.

I know that while many people are taking mask-wearing seriously, the numbers likely aren’t high enough to drastically reduce the spread of COVID-19. We have to be realistic about what is happening in our town – many people are not wearing masks simply because they are not required. If you make them required, the chance of spreading this terrible disease will go down… It’s that simple. According to a recent study by Cambridge University:

“In all modelling scenarios, routine facemask use by 50% or more of the population reduced COVID-19 spread to an R less than 1.0, flattening future disease waves and allowing less-stringent lockdowns.

Viral spread reduced further as more people adopted masks when in public. 100% mask adoption combined with on/off lockdowns prevented any further disease resurgence for the 18 months required for a possible vaccine”

Slowing the spread of COVID-19 will require a new kind of social contract that upholds mask-wearing as a Civic duty and public health issue to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized in our community. It’s not enough to rely on goodwill… We need critical mass to effect change, and we need real and immediate leadership from mayors and governors all over the country. You really do have the power to change the course of history right now for disabled, BIPOC and elderly people – all who are currently experiencing disproportionately higher rates of death from COVID-19.

I know mask-wearing doesn’t solve the institutionalization of disabled people or disparities that arise because of systematic racism or ableism… But it is an extremely tangible thing that almost every American can do. And I can’t sit aside and watch people die because our city/state/nation’s leaders didn’t mandate that every time you leave your house you should be wearing a mask (with medical exception notes that can be printed/carried around with people, of course)!

The reason masks are so critical is the fact that people in nursing homes and group homes aren’t going out (they aren’t even allowed to have visitors), so 100% of outbreaks must be coming from staff. Which means it’s on us to stop the spread to these nurses and group home staff (by distancing and wearing masks), and on them to be wearing masks when working. And I know that many workplaces haven’t provided proper PPE, but the evidence is in that homemade masks are at least partially effective – so they need to be worn whenever caring for someone directly.

What I’m trying to say is this: the problem of COVID-19 seems huge (and it is) but there is a very clear way we can all contribute and save lives. We can’t tell by looking who works at a group home or a nursing home or a hospital when we’re out in public. So that’s why you, as Mayor, should make wearing a mask required. Citizens just can’t know who is going to spread COVID-19 to the vulnerable, as asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people are causing a large percentage of the cases in this country.

We can’t allow ourselves to become complicit in the deaths of disabled and elderly people. And being lax on mask wearing is doing just that.

I really hope you will make mask-wearing in public required in Duluth (anywhere outside your home / yard would be my recommendation)… Society needs to amplify the voices of disabled people during COVID-19 and it needs to take its responsibility seriously when it comes to stopping the spread. We are being left to alone, often to die, as the rest of the world resumes its normal business. This isn’t a pandemic response I am proud of as a Duluthian or as an American.

I would really like to follow up this email with a phone call, as I would be more than happy to discuss these disability issues with you.  A week ago in Duluth we had a 1,000+ person protest (which was necessary & good and I understand why it needed to happen) however… masks were not required, only encouraged… Why not? Because it’s not an ordinance in Duluth. Spreading COVID-19 is largely preventable, but it needs to be enforced by the City of Duluth and by cities all over the country. You’ll never get drastic results with tepid actions and good intentions.

I know this is a very long message, but I really need to be heard right now, as do millions of disabled Americans. I hope you will listen, and then respond by taking meaningful action.

Gaelynn Lea

Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.