Jonathan Holth is happy to talk about the rules for masks at Urban Stampede, a downtown Grand Forks coffee shop. There’s a stack of disposables ready to go, for customers to wear when they’re not in the well-spaced seating. There’s been no real trouble, besides a little grumbling, and it’s helped keep everyone safer.

But when it comes to how other businesses should do things — or whether City Hall should make stronger mask rules — Holth politely declines to comment. It’s not for him to say.

“That’s a political topic,” Holth said, “and I’m just not willing to get into that.”

Holth is correct: mask mandates — or really any big, anti-pandemic safety rules — have become profoundly politically charged. There is no serious doubt that wearing masks helps stop COVID’s spread, but for some Americans, mask mandates (and even masks themselves) have become an avatar for something sinister, like perceived government overreach. Bucking them has become a political statement.

In Grand Forks and around North Dakota, where the virus is raging, that dynamic is squarely in the center of how leaders now weigh their response. In Fargo, after a July “directive,” Mayor Tim Mahoney issued a mask mandate on Monday (though without any penalties). The Minot City Council passed its own, also without a penalty, the same day.

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It’s a leap that not even Gov. Doug Burgum has previously been willing to take, preferring instead to appeal to North Dakotans’ judgment than to use the powers of his office. It only comes after virus cases have risen precipitously in recent months, rocketing North Dakota to the top of a list of states with the most new infections per capita.

“I think part of it is just natural North Dakota bull-headed intransigence. We don't like to be told what to do. We're independent,” UND political scientist Mark Jendrysik said. But he also adds that it’s a matter of partisan politics. "I think cues from political leaders are vital here. If the president had come out in early April and said ‘Everybody wear a mask,’ I don't think there would be a question (of wearing them)."

That kind of leadership by example, Jendrysik said, filters down to state politics, especially for Republican governors.

“Everything's political,” he said. “I think (Gov. Burgum is) calculating that mandates and stringent regimes are not popular with the voters.”

While Fargo and Minot have taken a new, stronger tone, the politics of the pandemic mean that in heavily Republican North Dakota, many others haven’t. This week, leaders of multiple cities in North Dakota backed away from a stronger line — including in Grand Forks, where Mayor Brandon Bochenski said mask use appears widespread.

“Across the board, outside of just a couple of retail spaces and really, restaurants and bars, we’re seeing good mask usage. So I've been really happy that it's gone that way without it needing to be forced on people,” said Bochenski, who joined four other mayors in the state last week in a letter that urges residents to wear masks.

Bochenski added that he opposes a mask mandate that doesn’t carry any punishment for breaking it. But he said that actually adding an enforcement mechanism could be a logistical nightmare, tying up police and court and emergency response resources.

“If we’re going to go to that, I need to make sure that it’s the right amount of force at that time,” Bochenski said. “And just seeing the way mask usage has increased dramatically gives me hope that that’s not something we need to do.”

Bochenski announced this week that he would mandate masks in city-owned buildings, protecting voters at the Alerus Center — where early voting will begin on Monday. But he said his views on a citywide measure remain unchanged.

“There’s not going to be a penalty. There’s just going to be a requirement. We’ll be able to control it when it’s underneath our noses,” he said. “I think the difference is that it’s very targeted to buildings the city controls.”

Rising numbers

But case numbers in Grand Forks and around the state have continued to mount, raising the question of what, exactly, City Hall should do. As of Thursday morning, a New York Times database showed North Dakota racking up 34,170 total cases since the beginning of the pandemic — nearly 4.5% of the state’s population. If North Dakota were its own, separate country, its per-capita case rate would make it the fourth most-infected country in the world, behind only Bahrain, Andorra and Qatar. It’s far in front of the national U.S. rate of about 2.5%

(The Financial Times, which keeps its own database, suggests the hypothetical independent country of North Dakota would actually be the most densely infected country in the world).

The same data showed that Grand Forks County is running at about the same case rate, with 3,365 total cases and almost precisely the same percent of local residents that have been infected. A list kept by the New York Times of communities with the biggest recent per-capita case spikes listed Grand Forks as 52nd largest in the country — meaning the virus is still burning through local residents.

Of 100 such communities, the Times counts that 23 of them — nearly a quarter — were in North Dakota.

“We are trending upward, there’s no question about it. I’ve been tracking this for many months,” said Grand Forks City Council member Ken Vein. He pointed out that, in recent months, the pandemic has no longer been confined to hotspots in major North Dakota cities. It’s nearly everywhere now, with daily reports showing new cases in swaths of counties around the state.

As a result, hospitals have begun filling up statewide. At Altru Health System’s Grand Forks hospital, officials have insisted that there’s still room for more patients, but have acknowledged that bed space is filling. At Valley Senior Living, a senior facility on Columbia, 25 staff and five residents had COVID as of Thursday.

Related: COVID-19 numbers remain high in Grand Forks nursing homes amid 'uncontrolled community spread'

Debbie Swanson, the local public health director, said the situation is not so dire in Grand Forks as in other parts of the state. Health Department officials are able to keep up with their contact tracing duties, she said, though public health work is certainly a full-time, highly stressful job. And mask use in Grand Forks is indeed better than in other parts of the state, she said.

Swanson is a public servant, and she won’t make policy recommendations. But in an interview, she did say she’s grateful for the public spaces that do require masks — like at UND and some retail shops and restaurants. And she pointed out a recent study by UND students that showed a mask mandate at Hugo’s grocery stores appeared to significantly boost the number of customers wearing them.

“Leaders have greater influence on behavior than they may realize,” a UND student presenting findings to the City Council said on Monday evening. “Hugo’s leadership, and their requirement, seems to have had a direct impact on getting more people to wear masks.”

City Council member Bret Weber is a UND social work professor and was a co-investigator on the study. He said he’s disappointed with recent handling of the virus — which he said has squandered the good early management the city had in the first months of the pandemic.

“I don't want to be too harsh, because I think our new mayor is doing a lot of things well, and none of us have governed through a pandemic before,” Weber said. But he said he’s frustrated by Bochenski’s insistence that enforcement issues make it difficult to move ahead on masks.

"That's sending mixed messages,” Weber said. “That's not what's important right now. What's important right now is that we're in the middle of a public health crisis and he needs to be sending clear messages. And a mayoral mask proclamation could be one of those messages. Ending city meetings in person could be one of those messages."

Masks are only one way the city could tackle the spread of the virus. But a key problem remains: the politics of the pandemic make any strong, interventionist policy politically unpopular.

It’s not clear precisely how the public is split on this — if anti-mask advocates are actually a majority, or a just a small, but very vocal, group of voters. Weber suggests it’s the latter.

For Dana Sande, the City Council president, it’s a problem of no solution seeming to fit quite right. Nothing, it seems, is what people want.

"We very much care about all the people in our community, and that includes the people that disagree,” Sande said. “Right now we're in a situation where 50 percent of the people are going to disagree with you no matter what you say. I don't know how to fix that. No matter what we do, we're wrong."