Two thousand rally at State Capitol against mandates for masks, vaccinations

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A maskless crowd of roughly 2,000 people gathered Saturday at the State Capitol to protest COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine requirements.

Roughly a half-dozen Republican legislators and two candidates for governor addressed the crowd, which in turn chanted "My body, my choice," waved American flags and hoisted signs that read "Stop the Mandates," "Coercion is not Consent" and "No Jabs for Jobs."

"This issue is about choice," said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. "Only you know what's best for your health, and only you should make a decision whether or not to inject or not inject."

The statewide mask mandate ended in May, but some local governments, businesses and school districts have independently moved since to require masks as case numbers surge across the state, triggered largely by the more infectious delta variant of the virus.

Proof of vaccination is required for state employees returning to work this fall and for students and staff on all University of Minnesota campuses. The state has left it up to individual institutions and businesses on whether to require vaccinations.

Still, speakers railed against the idea of carrying so-called vaccine passports to prove that people have either tested negative or been vaccinated against COVID. Many at the rally signed a petition to ban vaccine passports.

Both of the Republican physicians running for governor, Scott Jensen and Neil Shah, spoke at the rally. They have so far centered their campaigns against Gov. Tim Walz's response to COVID, which included mask mandates, business closures and distance learning for students.

Walz hasn't announced yet whether he will seek re-election in 2022.

Republican legislators said they've authored bills to include a religious exemption for vaccine requirements, and they want to add vaccination status to the state's list of groups protected against discrimination. They've also introduced bills to prohibit vaccine passports.

"You are the best ones to make decisions for your families, not government," Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, told the crowd. "We will continue to fight for you."

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said he thinks state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm should be removed from the job because he said the state hadn't done enough to tell citizens about the potential risks of the vaccine.

Senate Republicans, who hold the power to confirm Walz's appointees, rejected two of his commissioners during special sessions last year. In July, Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned ahead of an expected rejection in the Senate.

"It seems the only language the governor understands is the removal of another commissioner," said Abeler, who noted that he had previously defended Malcolm.

Lawmakers are expected to meet in a special session in September to debate $250 million in aid for front line workers. Walz has said he wants an agreement from Senate Republicans that they won't reject another commissioner before he calls lawmakers back.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach