FARGO — Many North Dakota cities will keep their local mask mandates in force despite the decision by Gov. Doug Burgum to allow the statewide mask mandate to expire.
The state mandate expired on Monday, Jan. 18. In announcing his decision last week, Burgum cited North Dakota’s considerable declines in new cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19.
The Fargo City Commission decided last week to extend the city’s mask requirement for another 30 days, through Feb. 18.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said on Monday that mayors around the state agreed in a meeting last week to continue their local mandates for another month. Cities that are extending their mask mandates include West Fargo, Valley City, Jamestown, Minot and Williston, he said.
“It’s worked really well in our community, so we’re a little reluctant to go away from that,” he said. “We don’t want to see another double bump.”
Mayors in other cities agreed that the masking requirements have helped to control the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.
“We all felt pretty strong that we should continue for another 30 days,” he said. The governor’s decision to allow the state mandate, announced in November and extended in December, was a disappointment to mayors around the state, Mahoney said.
“We just were happy about it,” he said, referring to the mandates’ effectiveness.
The dean of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Science warned that people should not drop their guard with the lifting of the state mask mandate.
"The worst thing we can do is declare victory," Dr. Joshua Wynne told Forum News Service.
He said we will likely never know if Burgum's mask mandate was the reason for the steep drop in cases or just a pure coincidence. But he said it's too dangerous to experiment.
"The odds are if people think this is behind us, there is going to be a train coming in the other direction that is going to wake us up in a really bad way," said Wynne, who has served as an adviser for the state’s pandemic response.
Mask mandates generated a lot of controversy before they were put into place last fall, but the opposition seems to have faded.
“The emails have settled down,” Mahoney said. “Most people have accepted it. It’s just kind of a way of life now.”
Officials at Fargo Cass Public Health had asked the local cities to continue the mandates, citing the fact that a more contagious variant of the virus is circulating around the country — including Minnesota — and the fact that vaccinations have just begun and most residents aren’t yet protected, he said.
Because vaccination is ramping up, mask mandates likely won’t have to remain in force for a lot longer, Mahoney said.
“We’re just about there,” he said. “Let’s not blow it.”
Physicians groups and other health professionals have been outspoken advocates for mask mandates as an effective way to control the spread of the virus.
Dr. Grant Syverson, a pediatrician based in Fargo, said masks are "100%" the best tool available for preventing the spread until the population has been vaccinated.
"We think the mandate itself has caused a rapid and sustained improvement" in reducing new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, he said.
Members of the North Dakota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians wrote a public letter urging a statewide mandate in October, before the state mandate took effect Nov. 13. Pediatricians released another public letter in December urging the statewide mandate to continue until Feb. 18 or longer.
“North Dakota had the greatest COVID outbreak and the highest death rate in the world in October when 64 pediatricians wrote an open letter to the Governor on October 14 requesting a mask mandate,” pediatricians wrote in the Dec. 2 letter. “Within two weeks enough cities had enacted mask mandates to cover half the state’s population."
After the state mandate was implemented, the state’s active cases dropped by almost 47% by Dec. 1, the pediatricians noted.
“North Dakotans need to remain vigilant and continue to wear masks over the winter months while immunizations gradually become available,” the pediatricians wrote.
Burgum encourages mask wearing and said he believes "personal responsibility" can carry North Dakota through the rest of the pandemic.
This story has been updated to remove Bismarck from the list of cities with mask requirement extensions.