Local chamber of commerce executive directors are busy this week distributing a one-time shipment of state-provided COVID-19 disposable masks.

Milaca Executive Director Andrea Mikla and Princeton Executive Director Kim Young learned about the mask distribution last Wednesday during a conference call with Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove, prior to Gov. Tim Walz’s mask mandate announcement.

In order to help support local businesses throughout the state, DEED prepared to a one-time shipment of disposable masks for chambers to distribute to local businesses.

The purpose of the shipments is to help businesses provide masks to customers who might forget to bring one to their businesses.

In an email, Grove said that based on its inventory, DEED calculated the number of masks it could send to each chamber using the number of employees in each county.

In total, DEED supplied an estimated 4.1 million disposable masks.

Walz signed an executive order requires all people wear face masks or coverings in indoor places of public accommodation and for workers in outdoor spaces where social distancing may be difficult. The governor’s mandate became effective July 25.

People with a medical condition, mental health condition or disability that makes it difficult for a person to wear a mask or face covering is exempt from the order.

Children under 5 years old are also exempt, however if they are between the ages of 2 and 5 they are encouraged to wear masks if able.

Face coverings may be removed when eating or drinking and when taking part in indoor physical exercise such as in a gym where the level of exertion makes wearing a mask difficult among other cases.

“Statewide, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, chambers have participated in conference calls with DEED,” Mikla said. “We started out with everyday calls, then we went to twice a week, and now we are down to once a week. There was a little bit of hinting that something might be coming, then we had the special call.”

Mikla coordinated the distribution for all three chambers of commerce in Mille Lacs County: Milaca, Princeton, and Isle.

“This involved a huge time burden,” she explained, adding that the Milaca Area Chamber of Commerce was selected as the lead for distribution because it’s centrally located in the county.

The masks arrived Monday and distribution to Milaca businesses is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, July 30, at Milaca City Hall, Mikla stated in an email Tuesday.

Mikla said last Friday, the Milaca Area Chamber of Commerce had received 6,500 requests for masks. DEED’s total allocation for the county was 14,000 masks.

Young was busy Tuesday morning distributing masks in Princeton’s Mark Park. She reported that Princeton had requests for more than 10,000 masks. Only 7,500 masks were available for local businesses, so numbers were limited, she added.

The Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce is a member of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Executives (MCCE), Young explained.

Last Thursday, she received an email that DEED had selected one chamber per county to be a distribution point for a one-time shipment of disposable masks.

DEED and the Minnesota Department of Administration made the decision about how many masks each county was to receive, Young said. They selected the Milaca Chamber of Commerce to receive the total shipment of 14,000 masks.

“From there, each chamber in the county is responsible for coordinating efforts to get masks distributed to businesses in their cities,” Young said. “The masks are intended to be used for customers who enter a business and do not have a mask.”

Young said she and Mikla connected right away after DEED’s initial notification and tweaked a template being used by another chamber, which included an online form that businesses could complete to request a mask order.