BISMARCK — North Dakota has put in place a statewide mask mandate, occupancy limits on public-facing businesses and the suspension of most high school winter sports as the state’s worst-in-the-nation COVID-19 outbreak continues to spiral out of control.

The mask order, announced in a news release late Friday night, Nov. 13, means residents of the state must wear face coverings in businesses, indoor public places and outdoor public settings where social distancing cannot be maintained. The order includes exemptions for children under five years of age, people attending religious services and those with disabilities that make mask-wearing unreasonable.

The order from interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke goes into effect on Saturday, Nov. 14, and will remain on the books through Dec. 14.

Violators of the mask order can be cited for an infraction, which could come with a fine up to $1,000 for a first offense. However, Gov. Doug Burgum urged law enforcement to prioritize education and reserve penalties for the most egregious infringements.

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North Dakota will join 34 other states, including Minnesota, that have already mandated mask-wearing.

The statewide order comes after most of North Dakota’s largest cities, including Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck, implemented mandates of their own in recent weeks. A handful of counties and at least four of the five American Indian reservations in the state also passed mask requirements, though most of the local mandates had no penalties.

Burgum also signed an order requiring that North Dakota's restaurants and bars limit on-site service to 50% of their normal occupancy, while capping the number of patrons served at 150. Event venues and ballrooms will be limited to 25% of normal maximum occupancy.

Restaurants and bars will have a curfew from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., during which in-person service is prohibited. Burgum said carryout and delivery will still be permitted during the night hours.

The occupancy restrictions will go into effect Monday, Nov. 16. Burgum urged businesses not covered by the changes to take mitigation precautions outlined in his administration's "Smart Restart" plan.

Fargo and Grand Forks leaders established similar occupancy limits and curfews for restaurants and bars in the last two days.

Burgum noted that the state will soon make $54 million in grants available to restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses to help the industry through the rough patch.

Earlier this week, Burgum moved every county in the state to the "high risk" level on the official COVID-19 gauge in a reflection of the intense stress on hospitals. The orange-coded level came with recommendations to limit occupancy to a quarter of normal capacity, but many businesses across the state ignored the guidelines.

The recommendations for restaurants and bars at the orange risk level are more stringent than what Burgum's order dictates, but the governor said the higher threshold in the new requirements will allow those already following the guidelines to "safely welcome more customers into their establishments with masking and distancing requirements."

Burgum has not put any counties at the red-coded “critical risk” designation, which would come with a stay-at-home order and mandatory business closures.

On Monday, Nov. 9, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum moved every county in the state to the "high risk" level on the official COVID-19 gauge in a reflection of the intense stress on hospitals. Screenshot via North Dakota Department of Health
On Monday, Nov. 9, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum moved every county in the state to the "high risk" level on the official COVID-19 gauge in a reflection of the intense stress on hospitals. Screenshot via North Dakota Department of Health

All high school winter sports and other extracurricular K-12 school activities will also be suspended until Dec. 14, though playoff championship contests and performance events sponsored by the North Dakota High School Activities Association can continue until the end of November. The restrictions also apply to all community and club sports for children and adults.

There are no changes to the district-by-district approach to in-person classes.

The moves made Friday signal a major change of heart for Burgum, who repeatedly refused to issue a mask mandate and touted his administration’s commitment to keeping North Dakota’s economy fully open.

Burgum frequently said residents should be trusted to take “personal responsibility” in wearing masks and refraining from social gatherings. The governor called the idea of a statewide mask requirement “an obsession of the media,” even going as far to say without evidence that a mandate could actively deter mask-wearing for some residents.

The Republican governor said Friday the state's efforts to impede the virus haven't been enough to preserve hospital capacity.

"Right now, the data demands a higher level of mitigation efforts to reverse these dangerous trends, to slow the spread of this virus and to avoid the need for economic shutdowns,” Burgum said. "Our situation has changed, and we must change with it."

Burgum implored North Dakotans to limit their small social gatherings over the next month, too. Health experts, including University of North Dakota medical school dean Dr. Joshua Wynne, have expressed fear that Thanksgiving get-togethers could lead to another spike in infection.

A chorus of doctors, nurses, political opponents and public health experts have harshly criticized Burgum’s "light touch" approach, and calls for stronger virus mitigation efforts from the state have gotten progressively louder over the last two months.

Earlier on Friday, Dr. Paul Carson, who has advised Gov. Doug Burgum on the state’s pandemic response, said there are a lot of COVID-19 mitigation strategies that could help slow community spread, and that the "strident calls" for change have not worked.

The shifts in North Dakota's pandemic response come on the same day the state surpassed the grim milestone of 700 COVID-19 deaths. The state leads the nation in deaths and new cases per capita over the last week — an unwanted title it has held for most of the last two months.

North Dakota hospitals are at capacity as nursing shortages continue to plague the virus-ridden state. Burgum announced several extraordinary measures earlier this week to address the shortage of health care workers, including allowing health care workers with asymptomatic cases of the virus to work in COVID-19 units at hospitals and nursing homes. The move was widely condemned by nurses, who say the state should have exhausted all other virus mitigation tools, including mandating masks, before allowing infected health care workers back into the workplace.

Nursing homes have been rocked by the outbreak in recent months, and nearly 600 North Dakota long-term care residents are currently infected with the virus. About 60% of the state's COVID-19 deaths have come in nursing homes since the beginning of the pandemic.

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