GRAND FORKS — The mayors of North Dakota's largest cities are urging residents of their communities to wear masks and maintain social distance as coronavirus numbers continue to climb in North Dakota.

A letter signed by the mayors of Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck, Minot and West Fargo stresses the importance of mask-wearing, washing hands and sanitizing surfaces.

"To get us through this wave of COVID-19 and to keep our communities open, it's crucial to be aware of our behaviors," the letter states before reminding residents about the importance of hygiene and masks. "We must keep our social interactions to small groups, social distance when out in the public, utilize testing events and stay home if sick."

In the letter, the phrase "wear a mask" was written in all capital letters.

Signees include Steve Bakken, of Bismarck; Brandon Bochenski, of Grand Forks; Bernie Dardis, of West Fargo; Tim Mahoney, of Fargo; and Shaun Sipma, of Minot.

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"We ask for increased diligence from our business community when it comes to NDSmart Restart Recommendations to include occupant capacity in particular. Further disregard may lead to the necessity of enforcement. Large events should be delayed whenever possible, until further notice," the mayors wrote. "We thank all citizens and businesses that continue to practice these essential steps and have shown tremendous civic duty for many months now. We will need to continue to keep our guard up by living daily life in a slightly different way."

The letter was distributed to the media late Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 13.

Bochenski, elected mayor of Grand Forks in June, told Forum News Service that the idea for the letter came at a League of Cities meeting last week.

"We just wanted to have a unified message coming out," Bochenski said. "We felt we had a lot in common as bigger cities. We just got together and wanted to have this unified message to be able to put out to our communities."

Bochenski, who stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the other signees, said the letter "is one action we could do, to just have a unified message."

COVID-19 illnesses continue to plague North Dakota, with the state Department of Health reporting 12 deaths Tuesday and record-high numbers of active cases. Overall, 357 North Dakotans have died of COVID-19 since March, with 90 deaths through the first weeks of October.

As reported by Forum News Service, Tuesday was the sixth day in a row the state has set a new pandemic record. North Dakota has reported the most COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the nation over the past week, according to The New York Times.

As numbers have risen, some criticism has been leveled at elected leaders in the state for not enacting mask mandates. Bochenski said the mayors' letter to residents is "still an ask. We're not enforcing masks."

"I want to be careful not to speak for them, other than what is in the document," he said, adding he believes the goal was "getting together and asking people to wear (masks) and that we're all on the same page that people should be wearing them."

Bochenski said the letter quickly gained consensus among the mayors.

"It's the message they wanted," he said.

The letter concluded with gratitude for "all citizens and businesses that continue to practice these essential steps and have shown tremendous civic duty for many months now. We will need to continue to keep our guard up by living daily life in a slightly different way."