While the coronavirus gains traction nationwide, many Midwestern governors are issuing “shelter-in-place” orders. North Dakota has, so far, been a holdout.
Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown on Friday said he thinks orders he and Gov. Doug Burgum have already issued – orders that closed bars and restaurants to foot traffic, shuttered salons and spas, and so on – exert the same net effect in Grand Forks as a broader one that would order residents to stay home.
“I feel, right now, we’re in a good place,” Brown told the Herald. “We get the message out – stay home, stay healthy, and I’m happy with that.”
It’s unclear what a shelter-in-place order in Grand Forks or North Dakota would entail, exactly. In general, orders like that urge people to stay at home whenever possible. Brown said on Friday that he believes he has the legal power to issue one, or something approximating it, for Grand Forks.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued a statewide “stay at home” order on March 25 that directs residents there to limit nonessential movement outside their homes. Walz on Friday said he worried about adjacent states – Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota – that have not yet issued similar orders. Walz believes they still will.
But an order to stay indoors doesn’t necessarily have any oomph behind it, and ones like Minnesota’s generally haven’t been strictly enforced. Violating it could theoretically mean jail time or a fine. In Minnesota, Walz said his order will bend toward education more than writing tickets.
A frequently-asked-questions section on the governor’s website urges Minnesotans to voluntarily comply with Walz’s order, and the order itself lists pages upon pages of exemptions for workers in “critical sectors” such as healthcare, law enforcement, transportation, manufacturing and more. Grocery runs, caring for a friend or loved one, and even fishing are all still OK under the order.
Nonetheless, police there have doled out a handful of tickets for violating an emergency powers order, according to the Star Tribune, which reported on Saturday that a Winnebago, Minn., man was the first to be charged with violating Walz’s executive order. Officers found four men drinking and playing cards inside the man’s bar.
In Grand Forks, existing social distancing directives are observed on something approximating the honor system, and residents generally “self-police” one another. If law enforcement gets involved, it’s to educate, not penalize.
The city won’t move beyond that – toward, say, issuing tickets to residents who gather in large groups – until people start disregarding those guidelines, Mayor Brown said.
“If we’re seeing gatherings, large gatherings, more than 10 people, or you’re getting 14 people in a restaurant waiting in the lobbyway,” he said. “If they can’t respect the guidelines to keep the community safe, then I think we’ll have to step up and say we’ll enforce it.”
He said he isn’t aware of those types of gatherings.
That indicates an apparent shift in the mayor’s thinking. Two days before, on April 1, Brown said the city would ramp up enforcement “when we start seeing community spread.”
But that had already happened at least one day prior: the North Dakota Department of Health announced on March 31 that a Grand Forks County resident had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and health department staff chalked up that person’s infection up to “community spread,” which means that they do not believe it was directly related to travel or contact with someone who had a confirmed case of the virus.
Brown said his threshold for tougher enforcement changed from community spread to noticeable disregard for preventative guidelines because the measures already in place seem to be working.
“We’re seeing this pandemic emerge, we’re seeing it grow. We’re looking at the cases increase,” he said. “But fortunately we’re not seeing them increase as low as predicted. It seems like the curve is flattening, so what we’re doing must be working.”