Discussion at a pair of Grand Forks public meetings this week was at times asymptotic: it approached – but never actually touched – the absence of a city mask mandate.
In a wide-ranging discussion on Tuesday of Grand Forks Public Schools plans to re-open in the fall, School Board member Cynthia Shabb urged residents to practice social distancing, and said it was easier for her to be in a store that requires its customers to wear masks to prevent the spread of a novel coronavirus.
“But I don’t see that in the city,” Shabb said. “And if the city will work with the school district, as we are part of the city, in implementing masks, I think we would come a long way.”
And, when Grand Forks City Council members on Monday considered allowing another downtown concert, more than one council member or speaker noted that the city’s COVID precautions don’t extend beyond a recommendation to its residents.
“Our policy is to only have guidelines,” City Council member Ken Vein said. “And we don’t have true means of enforcing it.”
Council members gave preliminary approval for the concert to proceed. At the school district’s meeting on Tuesday, Shabb said she was disappointed that city leaders would continue to allow big events without stringent rules in place.
Some private businesses, like the store Shabb mentioned, require masks, and many have set out signs and markers to help customers stay 6 feet apart while they shop. But there are no such requirements once they walk out the door.
A similar dynamic is shaping up at UND. Masks will be required when students, faculty, staff and visitors are in an on-campus building and in situations where a 6-foot physical distance cannot be maintained outdoors. But when students step off of campus, masks are not required in the city.
UND President Andrew Armacost said the city ultimately will decide whether it will have a mask mandate for residents, but he hopes UND students and community members will model good behavior off campus.
“It's an important step for them to take to make sure that they're doing it not just when they're with us under our watchful eye, but that their behaviors are positive, and promoting good health when they're out and about in the community as well,” Armacost said.
David Dodds, UND communications director, said it’s “encouraging” that the private sector is starting to require mask usage as a way to encourage people to wear face masks when out in public.
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, the union that represents most university employees, said the safety of the UND community and the Grand Forks community in general goes beyond what happens on campus.
“Everybody in that community and in every community has a responsibility on their own to mitigate this thing and that might mean wearing masks,” he said.
People should be following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including wearing a mask, washing hands and physically distancing, Archuleta said.
“We can all be doing our part to make sure that we mitigate the risk of infection,” he said.
Citing CDC Director Robert Redfield, Archuleta noted that wearing a mask can lower the risk of infection.
Earlier this month the CDC said there is “increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.” And Debbie Swanson, Grand Forks Public Health's director, said research has demonstrated that the more widespread policies are adopted, the greater likelihood of disease prevention.
“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” Redfield said. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
Archuleta said masks are an inexpensive way to reduce risk and while they are inconvenient and some people cannot wear them for health reasons, they can help keep campus open.
“The goal at UND is not just to open campus, it's to keep it open,” he said. “We can do that if we all work together as a community.”