At Alerus Center and beyond, a ‘balancing act’ between life and COVID

According to an internal Alerus Center review, conducted at the Herald’s request, attendance at a wedding there exceeded state “Smart Restart” COVID guidelines at the time by 62 people. The review shows there were at least four such events during the year that exceeded guidelines — another wedding, as well as general election voting and the Pride of Dakota shopping expo. Alerus Center officials say big events like these are carefully managed for maximum public safety.

Early voters cast their ballots on Monday, Oct. 26, at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks during the start of early in-person voting. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

On Oct. 30, there was a wedding at Grand Forks’ Alerus Center.

It was the worst day of the pandemic to that point in North Dakota, with 1,353 cases reported statewide. Ten days earlier, the county’s color-coded pandemic status moved to “red,” or “severe risk.” It was becoming unclear how much longer students would stay in public school; hospitals were already growing critically full, and within weeks, a leader at Grafton’s Unity Medical Center would tell the Herald a bed was set up in their chapel.

But on that day, Oct. 30, there was a wedding. Alerus Center planning documents, provided to the Herald on request, show a reception dance floor and 162 guests. A mayoral order requiring masks at the center snapped into place days before the event — which appears to have made the event safer, since those documents had not called for wedding guests to wear them.

Alerus Center officials insist that big events like this one are carefully managed for maximum public safety. They describe a white-gloved attention to safety details — setting out hand sanitizer and disinfecting surfaces and managing traffic flow. At the Oct. 30 wedding, for example, planning documents note the center’s circulation would “change over the air every 12 (minutes).”

“These (safety) plans were very well thought out,” said Pat McLean, who heads the citizen oversight board for the city-owned events center. “If you’re asking, ‘In hindsight, would we do that wedding again?’ I feel very comfortable saying yes.”


But holding a big event in a pandemic is part of a balance that Grand Forks has struck between the virus and everyday life. And at the Alerus Center, a city-owned building, it’s worth asking how responsibly leaders are using tax dollars to strike that balance.

According to an internal Alerus Center review, conducted at the Herald’s request, attendance at the wedding exceeded state “Smart Restart” COVID guidelines at the time by 62 people. That same review shows that there were at least four such events during the year that exceeded guidelines — another wedding, as well as general election voting and the Pride of Dakota shopping expo.

Anna Rosburg is the Alerus Center’s general manager, and she said that going past guidelines isn’t exactly what it sounds like. Those levels were simply guidelines — not mandates — and were exceeded carefully, knowing the Alerus had the benefit of a well-ventilated interior that the guidelines didn’t always account for. On the question of balance, she is absolutely certain that the events center has gotten it right.

“I feel confident in every event that we've hosted,” Rosburg said. “And I feel confident in the protocols we've had in place all along.”

Besides, she points out, plans for all four of those events were made with input from public health officials and reviewed by McLean and City Hall.

Multiple Grand Forks public health officials say they have no data tracing viral transmission back to the Alerus Center. But Ashlee Nelson, a senior contact tracing specialist in Grand Forks, said that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

"As far as the public health stance goes, the virus doesn't move itself. People move the virus,” said Javin Bedard, an environmental health supervisor with Grand Forks Public Health. “The public health stance has been, stay home if you can — avoid congregating and spreading it among people. Keeping it out of the general population is the methodology for keeping it out of the vulnerable population.”

This raises pointed questions of whether Grand Forks has balanced things correctly. Those four events that exceeded state guidelines happened during the worst months of North Dakota’s pandemic. During October and November, hospitals choked with patients and Grand Forks school leaders weighed whether they should keep kids in the classroom.


It’s the same balancing act that leaders have had to strike not just at the Alerus Center, but on everything — from bar closures to restaurant capacity.

"I think from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we always knew it was going to be a balancing act between public health and the economy,” City Administrator Todd Feland said. “Not only is there a balancing act, but there's a tension between the two.”

2020 brings hard times

The center has been a political whipping post for years for its historically shaky bottom line. But at the start of 2020, things were looking different: the Alerus was on pace to break its record for annual events. Then came the pandemic, which by April had cost the center nearly $370,000 in 67 canceled events and was threatening to cost it another $726,000 more. By November, it had become a symbol of the foundering local hospitality industry; Feland predicted the city might have to dip deep into the center’s cash reserves.

RELATED: Alerus, local tourism, battle through COVID-caused 'depression'

Rosburg and McLean flatly reject any suggestion that financial need has affected safety decisions. They were happy to welcome big events to the center, they said, and they never hosted anything they thought was dangerous. Rosburg points out that the Alerus Center, when necessary, has even shown it’s willing to cancel events that simply don’t cut it during COVID. That happened as recently as Dec. 4, for a holiday-themed dueling piano event.

And some events at the Alerus Center are essential parts of life. One example is voting, which welcomed thousands upon thousands of people indoors to cast ballots during the presidential election. Another example is testing events.

But in some cases, like the Oct. 30 wedding, the dissonance between the indoor gathering and the pandemic outside is hard to ignore. And it’s not the only example: Alerus Center records show a 110-guest wedding on Oct. 22, another 100-guest wedding on Nov. 13 and a 210-guest funeral on Nov. 18.

There is a sprawling, shifting, set of rules that regulate how those events work. There were the “Smart Restart” guidelines, published by the state. There have been local regulations on mask use in public buildings. There were new state thresholds, issued Nov. 13, that overhauled gatherings at venues.


In reporting this story, the Herald asked Alerus Center officials in November how often gatherings at the Alerus Center exceeded those state “Smart Restart” guidelines. Rosburg responded with a document that outlined 16 events that were large enough, or new enough in the pandemic, to warrant extra safety planning. On that list, she flagged four events where she said attendance tripped beyond the guidelines. She also provided safety documents for each of the 16 events.

She pointed out, though, that regulations have been in flux throughout the pandemic, and haven’t always been written with big event centers in mind. Perhaps the best example is an earlier wedding held on Oct. 22. Although at 110 attendees, Alerus Center records show it was 10 people beyond “Smart Restart” guidelines, Rosburg said it would have been just fine under attendance caps published weeks later that are better suited to big event centers.

“Event centers have much more space than is typical of a hotel banquet room or others,” Bedard, the Grand Forks health specialist, said of the new rules. “(That change) is the recognition of their sheer size and air-handling capabilities that most business banquet centers wouldn't have. Their capacity limits were increased."

And, Rosburg added, all 16 of those plans were reviewed by McLean as well as by Feland, and took input from local public health officials.

“From a staff standpoint, we're very diligent about our mitigation plans and very diligent about our guidelines and very diligent about our capacity,” Rosburg said in a December interview.

A balancing act

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski has been under some of the most pressure to manage the virus citywide, issuing executive orders across the course of the year on bars, restaurants and masks.

Bochenski describes his own balancing act as an attempt to steer Grand Forks through the ragged arguments over a virus that has become explicitly political. The debate over a local masking requirement is probably the sharpest example of this; after Bochenski urged the use of masks for months, but didn’t demand it, the Grand Forks City Council went ahead and mandated their use anyways — though in the form of a resolution that included no punishment for disobeying the mandate.

Bochenski describes his holdout position on ordering masks — and all the other tough mayoral decisions — as an attempt to keep the city from “ripping at the seams.” (In a November conversation, Bochenski said he was not involved in event planning decisions for the Alerus Center)


"You had the community fractured over this, and it was just keeping both sides together,” he said of the pandemic. “Where you don't have mask protests, where you don't have businesses openly breaking laws.

There is a grander, more unified theory of why all this balance is necessary, and it leads back to the federal government. After an initial burst of COVID relief and jobs protection and citizens’ checks, Congress has not moved ahead on a more recent stimulus package (though recent reports suggest they are close).

If bars don’t get more paycheck protection for workers, how can cities ask them to close? Without more aid to cities, how much harder is it to keep the lights off at big events centers? Thus, the need to keep striking a balance.

"If the federal government was going to provide more support, it would have been easier to put more restrictions on businesses, certainly,” Bochenski said. “But without that, it's difficult to have a complete shutdown or to shut down businesses. Because that affects their livelihoods, too."

In the meantime, that balance remains at the forefront of North Dakota daily living, from Grand Forks City Hall to Bismarck.

“I feel so far, North Dakota has navigated pretty well on the balance of saving lives and saving livelihoods,” Gov. Doug Burgum told the Herald editorial board this month, “(of) keeping kids in school and keeping the economy open.”

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