BISMARCK — A proposal to ban mask mandates in North Dakota attracted a tightly packed crowd of mask skeptics and masked-up health officials to the North Dakota capitol on Thursday, April 1.

A hearing on the measure, which reopened the debate on North Dakota’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, came as the state has lately seen signs of a reemerging outbreak concentrated on the state's eastern edge. The Fargo area surpassed its active case peak from last May on Thursday, and the city’s current outbreak rivals the infection levels from early October, when North Dakota's cases were on the verge of exponential growth.

If passed, House Bill 1323 would bar North Dakota officials from instituting a mask or face covering requirement, from the statewide level down to local governments like Fargo's. It’s a policy that Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said would deprive the city of a tool that proved key to limiting the area's outbreak during the last surge.

“Our mask mandate helped bring our numbers down in the fall, so we feel very strongly: please give us the ability to do that,” Mahoney said in an interview.

Though the mayor suggested that a return to a mask mandate isn’t imminent in Fargo, he said the measure is on the table if the current trend doesn’t abate.

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“We don’t do that without getting grief," he said. "I mean if the locals don’t like it, they tell you.”

Masking and mask mandates both became political flashpoints over the last year, and the issue remains a rallying point for many North Dakotans who saw Gov. Doug Burgum’s decision to install a statewide mandate last November as an infringement on personal liberties.

“Never in American history, through all the wars and pandemics, have we seen it fit to take away peoples’ God-given rights until 2020,” said Republican Rep. Jeff Hoeverson, a Lutheran pastor in Minot who has been one of the Legislature’s most outspoken mask opponents over the last year. “We’ve got a lot of parents — like hundreds of parents — who are asking us not to force them to put masks on their children.”

Burgum expressed skepticism at the effectiveness of mask mandates through much of the fall surge, but reversed his position near the height of the state’s outbreak in mid-November. Several local governments, including Fargo, Bismarck and Minot, brought the state under a patchwork of mandates before the statewide mandate, which expired in February.

North Dakota’s COVID-19 case numbers plummeted after Burgum announced the statewide mandate, though public health experts have said that the state’s sudden reversal was likely driven by a combination of factors, including increased social distancing and business restrictions, local mask requirements.

But experts have nonetheless argued the importance of mask mandates in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and other infections, and several of the state’s public health leaders appealed to lawmakers on Thursday to keep the option for a mandate intact.

Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease professor at North Dakota State University, noted the strong evidence that widespread masking slows the spread of COVID-19. He also pointed to growing evidence that government-enforced mask requirements boost a community’s observance of masking guidelines, making them a valuable public health tool.

The cumulative death rates of several Upper Midwest states that took divergent policy responses to last fall’s surge, for example, suggest that statewide mask mandates increased mask usage and suppressed deaths, Carson said. He noted that South Dakota, which never implemented a statewide mandate, led the region in cumulative death rate, while North Dakota, which opted for a statewide mandate late into the fall surge, came in by a close second. By contrast, Montana and Minnesota implemented mask mandates months earlier than North Dakota and showed vastly lower cumulative death rates, “almost to the tune of almost half as many cumulative deaths per capita,” Carson said.

“Do we really want to put a burden on our state that gives us an inability to ever issue a mask mandate?” he asked.

The bill to ban mask mandates narrowly passed the House earlier this session, but members of the Senate Political Subdivisions Committee voted 6-1 on Thursday to give it a “Do Not Pass” recommendation, setting up the proposal for an uphill climb on the Senate floor later this month.

So far, the outbreak in Fargo has not been accompanied by increasing virus deaths or a severe spike in hospitalizations. But Kirby Kruger, the disease control director for the Department of Health, noted that North Dakota’s recent climbing cases, which surpassed 1,200 on Thursday for the first time since early January, come with the added unknown of new, more contagious virus variants.

In Fargo, Mahoney said he thinks the city’s current hold on the bulk of North Dakota’s virus cases is likely due to the area’s diligent testing relative to other parts of the state. For now, he said he doesn’t see a consistent enough increase in case numbers to justify a return to the local mask mandate, but he added that that diagnosis could change quickly.

“What would make me change my mind?” he asked. “It’s on a daily basis — things could change in a week.”

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.