BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum pleaded Tuesday with North Dakotans, but he again rejected the idea of issuing a statewide mask mandate.

North Dakota is one of 15 Republican-led states where masks are not mandated statewide, according to the AARP. Kansas, which has a Democratic governor, has mandated masks, but most counties in the state have opted out of the requirement.

Burgum said "masks are essential" in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but he maintained that mandating them statewide is not the best way to tackle the virus.

Despite high infection rates in North Dakota's most populous metro areas, Burgum Tuesday, Sept. 8, reiterated that the state is on the right path by putting confidence in residents to make decisions on masks for themselves.

"We've had a great track record so far of relying on personal responsibility, and I guess I'm still hoping in my heart of hearts that North Dakota can step up and figure out a way to get it done (through) local leadership and local execution," Burgum said. "Maybe in some other states (mask mandates) might work, but in North Dakota it doesn't matter what we do or what we say: There are people who will not wear a mask."

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The first-term governor added that a mandate "could create more divisiveness" in a state like North Dakota where residents value highly their personal freedoms.

State Field Medical Officer Dr. Joan Connell, who traveled the region to study the issue, said last week that mandates are proven to increase mask-wearing and lower infection rates. Connell, who was advocating for a mandate in the Bismarck metro area, cited a recent study published in Health Affairs as evidence for the claim.

Connell said there's irony in the fact that many school children across the state are the only ones required to wear masks despite having the lowest chance of suffering a serious illness from COVID-19. She noted that many adults are not being responsible and wearing masks in public, which is likely the cause of the state's rise in infections over the last two months.

Local and county officials can require mask-wearing in the state but, so far, only tribal leaders on two of the state's American Indian reservations have taken the step.

Burgum also spoke briefly about a new use for federal coronavirus aid approved Tuesday by the state's Emergency Commission. The Bank of North Dakota would receive $50 million in CARES Act funding to establish a debt forgiveness fund for North Dakota businesses. Under the proposal, businesses could apply to receive up to $50,000 in grants to buy down interest on existing loans.

The Legislature's Budget Section still must vote on the program at its meeting later this month.

Active cases drop on low-testing day

Earlier in the day, the North Dakota Department of Health reported a decrease in active cases, with 2,264 North Dakotans now known to be infected with the illness. This is an approximately 15% drop from the state's record high number in active cases announced over the holiday weekend.

The Department of Health reported the results of 1,431 new tests. The state typically has fewer testing events over the weekends, which can be attributed to Tuesday's low numbers. Of the new tests announced, 75 came back positive.

There are 63 hospitalized residents due to COVID-19, including 19 people in intensive care.

The department reported no new deaths Tuesday. To date, 156 North Dakotans have died from the illness, including 83 residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Twenty-two of the new cases came from Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck. The county has the second most active cases with 405. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported eight new cases and has 134 active cases.

Sixteen of the new cases reported Tuesday came from Cass County, which includes Fargo. The state's most populous county has 345 active cases. North Dakota State University has reported 136 student and employee cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks.

Ward County, which encompasses Minot, reported eight new cases Tuesday. The county now has 111 active cases.

About 5.2% of the 1,431 test results announced Tuesday came back positive, but 8.4% of residents tested for the first time received a positive result.

North Dakota does not report a seven-day rolling average for positivity rate as many other states do, but Forum News Service calculated the rate to be 8.9% for tests taken on previously untested residents.

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