BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum defended his tougher restrictions across the state in a statement late Wednesday night while simultaneously walking back limits on practices for winter sports and other extracurricular activities.
A late Wednesday, Nov. 18, new release, from Burgum, House Majority Leader Chet Pollert and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said the state would allow winter sports practices and extracurricular activities to resume on Nov. 30 with extra precautions, while competitions will remain suspended until Dec. 14.
Schools and contact tracers reported greater spread of the coronavirus and close contact designations in sports and activities compared to classroom settings, Burgum said.
However, additional precautions that coaches and athletic associations said they will be taking at practices to help slow the spread and do their part to save vulnerable North Dakotans include no travel for association activities outside of their home territory, no locker room use and coaches remaining masked at all times.
There will also be no spectators allowed, with facilities restricted to players, coaches and staff.
The reason for waiting until Dec. 14 to resume games, Burgum said, is that it will allow two 14-day incubation cycles of the virus to pass before teams begin competing against each other.
The news release also addressed questions raised about bars being allowed to remain open while certain school activities are paused.
"The bar and restaurant industry employs thousands of North Dakotans who rely on this income to provide for their families and support local schools and services, and the industry has been forced to modify operations throughout the pandemic," he said.
Some bars and restaurants in high-risk counties weren’t adhering to the ND Smart Restart recommendations to limit occupancy to 25% and require face coverings, and restrictions announced Friday replaced those recommendations with requirements. Bars and restaurants are required to limit occupancy to 50% of licensed seating capacity, not to exceed 150 people, and in-person service is not allowed between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
To help those businesses, the release said, North Dakota Department of Commerce will begin accepting applications for the Hospitality Economic Resiliency Grant at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 20, through 5 p.m. Dec. 4. The state has made $54 million available for the program to provide relief to bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and certain other businesses affected by the pandemic.
As for school activities, Burgum said, cases among the state's youth continued to climb dramatically this month, which is another reason for caution. For those in 0-to-18 year-old age group, cases increase from 721 in August to 3,061 in October and 3,224 through the first 17 days of November.
"It’s essential for all parents and North Dakotans to understand that youth and young adults are part of the 'invisible epidemic' in the rapid chain of transmission occurring in North Dakota right now," Burgum said.
"The actions of individuals, families and teams have direct impacts on health care workers and those they care for in hospitals and long-term care centers now and in the future, especially over the next 10 days when traditional multi-generational gatherings hold dangerous transmission possibilities," he said.
Burgum said young people can be asymptomatic spreaders and unknowingly infect friends and family members.
The governor added that steps, including the statewide mask mandate and bar and restaurant requirements, are necessary to "avert a statewide crisis of ration care."
He said health care workers are "overworked and overwhelmed."
"We understand and appreciate the concerns about the mental health needs of students, and we share them and empathize with the students who have sacrificed so much this year, " Burgum said. "We also can’t allow an unchecked spread of infections to keep growing to the point where more and more schools are forced to switch to full distance learning due to lack of teachers, which also is detrimental to students’ mental health and academic progress, and we also must consider the mental well-being of our health care workers."
Burgum noted numerous statewide groups expressed support for the governor's stricter regulations including the North Dakota Long Term Care Association — which said it had 1,500 employees statewide not at work because of being infected or quarantined — the North Dakota Hospital Association and the North Dakota State Association of City and County Health Officials.