FARGO — Another week, another North Dakota city commission meeting that's gone national. This time, it was Bismarck and a commissioner who invoked rape victims into his reason for not wanting a mask mandate to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The pickins' have been easy lately, with local governments left out in the cold by Gov. Doug Burgum in fighting a global pandemic. The Fargo, Mandan and Bismarck city commissions have all made national news because of silly, ignorant or dangerous comments made in their meetings about mask mandates.
It's nothing about which to laugh. COVID cases are exploding, deaths from the virus have surpassed 500 and nothing is changing. And that fault lies not with the locals, but with Burgum.
"The light touch of government," is the governor's favorite line, highlighting his belief it's best to keep state government out of local decisions.
It's a cliche, and a cop-out.
Burgum sells himself as a small-government hero when instead what he's really doing is leaving the heavy lifting up to part-time, unprepared, often under-informed locals who have to face the up-close-and-personal wrath of whatever decisions they make while the governor looks down from the mountain.
- Another grim milestone leaves North Dakota 'stunned and hurting' with over 500 COVID-19 deaths
- Burgum praises patchwork of local mask mandates as North Dakota reaches doorstep of 500 deaths
- McFeely blog: Bismarck commissioner falsely pitches vitamin D as 'scientifically proven' way to prevent COVID deaths
That makes the governor not a freedom-loving hero, but a weakling unwilling to take the heat off local governments and businesses by making a tough decision.
A "tough" decision, by the way, that is supported by a majority of North Dakotans.
It's easy to push decisions on others. It's easier to blame the media for having an "obsession" with mask mandates. It's harder to say, "The buck stops here."
It's not Burgum who must deal with the anti-mask loudmouths and conspiracy theorists who fill city and county meetings with anger and misinformation. Bismarck's meeting devoted to a mask mandate lasted six hours and resulted in a watered down decision with no teeth.
It's not Burgum who has to deal with these same anti-mask loudmouths in local businesses, whose owners are left trying to decide whether requiring customers to wear masks for their employees' safety is worth the hassle. Many local business owners are begging Burgum for a statewide mandate to take the pressure off them and their employees.
Instead of showing leadership, though, Burgum is praising a patchwork of "mandates" and "recommendations" from local governments that aren't consistent and, judging by the explosion of COVID cases recently, aren't being taken seriously and aren't working.
What might help is the man at the top issuing a statewide order, with potential penalties, underlining the seriousness of the situation while taking the heat off local government officials.
Not everybody will follow a mandate, that's a given. But Burgum will show how serious he is about mask-wearing and it will likely lead to more people strapping on a face covering. It will also take the burden off business owners, who can simply say to angry customers, "It's a statewide rule."
Local politicians didn't sign up to manage a global pandemic. They don't deserve the pressure, or anger, that's been put on them. Burgum could solve the problem by showing an ounce of backbone.
Readers can reach Forum News Service columnist Mike McFeely at (701) 451-5655