Just days after UND students returned to Grand Forks in August, coronavirus cases surged.
What started off as some 70 cases on campus two days before move-in day quickly turned into more than 300 in about a week’s time. It had community members wondering just how long the university might stay open and city and university leadership considering their next move.
In the midst of a late meeting about the soaring case numbers, UND President Andrew Armacost sent a text to Mayor Brandon Bochenski. The campus had suspected another 125 positive tests (tests they’d later learn had already been counted) and the university’s resources were shrinking.
Campus leaders sought help.
“Now is the time for city action – mandate masks at a minimum. Limit group size. Close superspreader locations like bars,” Armacost urged in the text message at 10:26 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 28.
Bochenski took action the next day, declaring an 11 p.m. closing times for local bars and restaurants, an effort meant to dissuade students from gathering in bars late at night. The decision to close bars early came after Bochenski met with Dr. Deborah Birx, from White House coronavirus task force, and Gov. Doug Burgum, among others, in Fargo on Saturday, Aug. 29.
That exchange is one of many of the conversations, texts and emails that were taking place behind the scenes as coronavirus numbers dramatically surged in Grand Forks in late August and September. Through an open-records request, the Herald has obtained thousands of emails and texts between Armacost, Bochenski, members of the City Council and others. The records show the frank and sometimes fraught and tense discussions about the impact of the coronavirus on the UND campus in late August, as well as the dilemma facing city leaders as they questioned whether and how to enact a mask mandate.
The documents also provide a look at the conversations that were taking place out of the public view as coronavirus cases escalated in Grand Forks. Such discussions by local officials are by no means illegal, as long as a quorum of an elected board is not participating. However, state law allows taxpayers – or the media – to see these records upon request, provided the requester pays associated handling fees. The Herald paid approximately $1,350 for its requests made to the city and UND.
On Monday, Oct. 26, the City Council adopted a mask resolution, requiring residents to wear masks in public places. The resolution, which carries no penalties, passed unanimously. Armacost counts it as an important move for the campus, too. Not only will students be required to wear masks while roaming campus and UND buildings, but the expectations will now be the same off campus as well.
“I think it's a very positive move,” Armacost told the Herald Wednesday. “But at least for UND, I was pleased to see us have similar expectations on and off campus.”
Concerns and opinions
Bochenski had raised concerns throughout the summer about the enforceability of a mask mandate. In an Aug. 7 email to council leadership, Bochenski said he wanted to “make long-term and sustainable decisions” for Grand Forks and saw an unenforced directive “as only a change in vocabulary and not a proper way to govern.”
“We have a tough job during this time and with the state allowing us to make local decisions, it is important we think about long-term sustainability of our actions,” Bochenski wrote. “There is little possibility to eliminate all risk from this virus likely for the rest of our lives. We should continue to educate on mask usage and engineer ways for proper social distancing, cleanliness and safety.”
The topic of mask mandates and increased COVID-19 measures would continue. Over the next several weeks, Bochenski and City Council members received emails from concerned citizens and medical experts; discussions about potential mandates would occur during City Council meetings.
One resident asked city leaders to consider a mask mandate for businesses so their children’s school could stay open.
“As evidenced by the public comments tonight, these weeks of inaction by the city council need to end, Grand Forks needs leadership,” a resident wrote in an email on Aug. 31. “I have two kids that just returned to school this morning and I wish you would do everything you can do to limit the chances of the situation of the schools closing again. Please trust the advice of the subject matter experts available to you and lead the city into action.”
In an email to City Councilman Bret Weber, Marc Basson, a Grand Forks surgeon and an associate dean at UND’s medical school, questioned what it would take for the city to enact a mask mandate. Basson was a part of an expert panel with the city.
“Bret, for what it’s worth (and I know this is politically unpopular) I will restate that the notion that even at ‘red’ we will only ‘encourage’ mask wearing and that in ‘orange’ we will encourage it ‘when social distancing can’t be maintained’ is begging for disease escalation,” Basson wrote on Aug. 27. “Really? Even if the hospital is overwhelmed and people are dying for lack of ventilators, we’re going to ‘encourage’ mask wearing?”
Meanwhile, others argued against a mask mandate.
On Aug. 12, a resident emailed City Council President Dana Sande, asking him to vote against any potential mask mandate.
“As a citizen of Ward 6 I would strongly encourage to not vote in favor of any resolutions requiring citizens to wear masks,” the resident wrote, noting that the state’s positivity rate was around 5% at that time. “Further, wearing a mask does not kill the disease, it only prevents the spread of the disease. If the governor of North Dakota, who has many more resources and many more advisors than you, doesn’t require citizens to wear masks you should do the same.”
In his reply, Sande pointed out that he was working on getting more information and how entities like the school district were using COVID data to drive decision-making. Sande wrote that if he found a mask mandate would help keep schools open, he would support it.
“I fully understand this isn’t a popular choice among many,” Sande wrote in the Aug. 12 email. “I’m prepared to deal with the consequences, including losing your vote.”
City Council members debated the topic among themselves in text messages, too.
In Aug. 24 texts between Sande and Councilman Kyle Kvamme, Sande said he was in favor of masks within city buildings, but wished to see more local data before making a decision on a citywide mandate. Kvamme echoes Sande’s sentiment in later messages on Aug. 31, when asked by Sande if he would support a citywide mandate.
“I have not heard enough to sway me. I would gladly vote for it with the right reasons. Not a gut feeling,” Kvamme texted Sande.
City Council Member Katie Dachtler reached out directly to Armacost on Aug. 23, noting concerns about a party that was occurring without masks or social distancing. In texts, Armacost indicates he drove past the party and saw no mask usage, adding that there was no requirement to wear one at that time.
In follow-up texts, Dachtler said she was “concerned about reports of crammed downtown bars with students from last night and tonight.”
“Any way that I can be of assistance in keeping UND and GFPS, as well as our local economy open, I am willing to help,” she wrote.
In another message she told Armacost to let her know if there was “a growing number of council members that are coming to a point of action.”
In text messages to Bochenski on that same day, Armacost wrote that local ward citizens are concerned about safety.
“Katie Dachtler called me and suggested a push for city council to mandate certain measures… masks, group sizes, etc. (I) wanted you to be aware of that push.”
Armacost goes on to tell Bochenski that he shares the same city concern about student behavior when they are off campus.
“I don’t currently have authority to punish off campus behaviors, so I support city action to do so. But such action, I realize, is politically sensitive. I’d be happy to speak at council about my concerns.”
Other emails sent by Armacost show his leadership style behind the scenes at the university, including one set of emails sent on Aug. 20 to UND employees Meloney Linder and Cara Halgren about planned messaging for students. Linder indicated that UND hockey coach Brad Berry and the Fighting Hawks mascot would appear in a video encouraging students to do their part to slow the spread of coronavirus, including wearing a mask and social distancing.
Armacost warned that “cute is not going to cut it.”
“This is the most serious point of the students’ return,” Armacost wrote. “Many other schools have failed. We might have the same fate. The messaging has to be very strong. The Hawk doesn’t have a vocabulary to use, so Brad’s messaging will be critical.”
On Saturday, Aug. 29, the night Bochenski moved to close bars early, Armacost sent an email to members of the UND executive council indicating Bochenski was going to “start taking steps” to help slow the spread of the virus, including closing bars at 11 p.m. But Armacost noted there was “no movement on masks,” although Armacost said he was strongly encouraging Bochenski to “take this simple but meaningful step.”
The email goes on to say that Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus coordinator, and Gov. Doug Burgum were “impressed” with what UND was doing at the time.
Armacost praised his team for their work to that point.
“To us, it feels like a daily, uphill battle as we are in the middle of the grind, but we are doing great work,” he wrote. “Strong testing. Strong response systems with quarantine and isolation. Strong internal and external communication. Exemplary teamwork.”
Action too late?
Bochenski told the Herald Tuesday that the council’s 7-0 vote on the mask resolution rang loud and clear. It was a decision he couldn’t reasonably veto.
“I’m certainly not going to undermine the decision,” he said. “When you have a 7-0 decision, that shows they’re all in line and I need to support that decision. That’s why I signed the resolution.”
When asked if he thought he could have acted sooner or had any regrets about how the mask mandate finally came together, Bochenski pointed out that the coronavirus situation is “unprecedented” and that since the day he took office in June, he has recommended masks, hand-washing and social distancing.
“I think we're all doing the best we can,” he said Tuesday. “I don't have any regrets.”
The suspected 125 cases Armacost texted about on Aug. 28 turned out to have already been counted and UND was able to secure more quarantine and isolation space at local hotels, while also hiring more contact tracers.
Regardless, Armacost said the potential 125 new cases added to the 330 active cases the campus had at that time left him “gravely concerned that we had just run out of space.”
“So, my reaction at that point was we need some action from the city,” Armacost told the Herald this week when asked whether he felt frustrated by any lack of city action on masks. “So, I shared those opinions privately with the mayor and his responsibility is to make decisions on behalf of the city that he thinks are appropriate.”
Armacost said he continued to have conversations about masks and expectations on and off campus whenever he was asked for his opinion.
Active cases ultimately peaked at 330 that late August weekend; by mid-September, campus case numbers fell into the mid 30s.
“It reinforces the idea that our testing strategies, our quarantine and isolation strategies, our close contact tracing and our prevention strategies, we believe are highly effective,” Armacost said. “They're an example to be modeled by other universities, but also by the community as well.”
Armacost said it’s difficult to pinpoint whether COVID policies, or lack thereof, in the city had an impact those first two or so weeks on campus. UND is seeing another, this time more gradual, uptick in COVID-19 cases. As of Friday morning, the campus had around 100 active, self-reported positive tests.
But the university believes in the science of masks and all the other measures it has taken, Armacost said.
“We believe in the effectiveness of masks – that's why we require them on campus,” he said. “We believe them as an agent to reduce the spread, just like distancing and hygiene and avoiding large crowds.”