After a few hours of reviewing what they already knew and sometimes-testily relitigating national arguments about the virus, Grand Forks City Council members informally agreed to create a handful of committees to further work on the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic fallout for Grand Forks-area businesses.
“I came in tonight hoping for some bold, assertive, proactive measures,” said council member Bret Weber, who told the Herald on Wednesday night that he’d be deeply disappointed if nothing changed at the Thursday meeting. “But I’m leaving with the sense that the mayor’s more incremental approach ... that we move forward with that.”
That incremental approach has culminated thus far in an order, which Mayor Brandon Bochenski signed about 90 minutes before the meeting, that puts a series of restrictions on bars and restaurants in the city.
The order requires businesses to close their dance floors; keep patrons seated unless they’re entering, exiting, or using the bathroom; close blackjack tables, dartboards, and other bar games; caps occupancy at 50% of the figure listed on each business’ permit, and requires any special event or gathering that expects more than 500 people to undergo review by city health workers and other administrators.
Violating Bochenski’s order means a $500 fine, which doubles to $1,000 for subsequent offenses. It comes about a week after the mayor ordered Grand Forks bars and restaurants to close at 11 p.m. each night throughout November.
City Administrator Todd Feland said the net effect of those orders is more restrictive than any other city in North Dakota.
“We mean business,” Feland told council members. “We all mean business. We’ve all been at this for a while, OK?”
Feland said city administrators also are working on a proposal that would alleviate the financial stress on businesses with liquor licenses by, perhaps, pushing back their license fees.
“Some of these measures are going to help, certainly are going to help, but we’re not going to have zero cases and zero deaths,” a visibly frustrated Bochenski said, his voice raised, as the meeting began its third hour. “And you can charge someone $100,000 for not wearing a mask. It’s still not going to keep people out of the hospital and keep people from dying.”
Weber said he felt the goal wasn’t zero infections or zero deaths.
“I think our goal is to flatten the doubling so we can survive until we get through to the vaccine day,” he said, referring to the rate at which positive recorded cases double, which, at present, is about every 23 days. “That’s our way out of here.”
And yet another order is in the works, as well.
Dr. Joel Walz, Grand Forks County’s health officer, told council members he intends to sign a countywide mask mandate that, unlike a citywide one council members OK'd late last month, carries actual penalties for violating it.
“I contemplated an order a month ago and didn’t do it, and we’ve had a terrible October,” Walz told council members. “I’m a doctor and I’m all about preserving life. I think it’s sacred, and I’m seeing too many die. If I can make an impact on less deaths, I've got to do what I think I can do to help. It’s my calling.”
Because North Dakota law stipulates that violating a health officer’s order is a Class B misdemeanor, that could mean penalties as severe as 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.
That worried council member Danny Weigel, a UND police officer, who noted that prostitution and driving under the influence are also Class B misdemeanors.
Those, however, are maximum penalties. Haley Wamstad, Grand Forks County state’s attorney, told the Herald earlier this week that prosecutors and judges have a lot of leeway when recommending or meting out punishments.
Unless Walz specifically exempts the city, his order would encompass Grand Forks proper.