BISMARCK, N.D. — Although North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has not issued a statewide mask-wearing mandate to curb the spread of COVID-19, local leaders can choose to institute one in their communities.
But, in the places where it may be needed most, city and county officials are rejecting the idea of a mandate.
Cases in the Bismarck-Mandan area have greatly increased over the last month, and now the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force is approaching all local governments, both cities and counties, and recommending they implement a mask mandate.
At a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the Bismarck City Commission rejected the idea of such a mandate for the city's public spaces, noting that more information detailing the spread of the illness in the city is needed and that citizens need to be educated about masks and their effectiveness before a mandate is issued.
"My biggest concerns (are) keeping the economy moving (and) getting the kids back in schools, and I don't think mandates drive those trends for compliance," Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken said Tuesday. "It's the educational piece and the messaging. These people need to do the right thing for the right reason."
Bismarck commissioners said they were concerned about how long a mask mandate would have to be in place.
Local officials said enforcing a mask mandate would only work at curbing COVID-19 spread if all the local governments — the commissions of Burleigh and Morton counties and Bismarck, Mandan and Lincoln city commissions — were in unison about their decision.
Burleigh County Commission Chairman Jerry Woodcox said that as a commissioner, a Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force member and a small business owner, he is not in favor of a mask mandate.
"I think the health community is relying on numbers and you can interpret numbers in many different ways," Woodcox said, adding that the county's 14-day positivity rate would need to increase by 25% or 30% for him to consider a mandate.
The 14-day positivity rate for Burleigh and Morton counties together was 5.97% as of Tuesday, and active cases in the two counties have more than doubled since the beginning of August, with now almost 530 residents known to be infected with the illness.
Mandan Mayor Tim Helbling told Forum News Service he does not think there's enough evidence to prove that masks are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19.
"I believe in people's freedoms and their right to choose," Helbling said. "At this point, I don't think there's enough scientific information out there to even try to go after a mandate."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks in public. Many officials, including Burgum, say North Dakotans use "personal responsibility" and know when they need to wear a mask and stay home if they are feeling ill.
Sept. 4, the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force recommended that all local governments in the area implement a mask mandate. And since then, local government officials have received hundreds of emails, calls and text messages from residents expressing their disapproval of such a mandate.
Morton County Commission Chairman Cody Schulz said many of the messages he received were very passionate about the effect a mask mandate could have on businesses and the local economy. Schulz said he thinks people are smart and will wear masks to protect vulnerable populations, keep students in schools and grow the economy.
"That's why we need to do this and wearing masks can help," he said. "My hope is that we can get folks to wear them through persuasion rather than regulation."
Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for American corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org