On Monday night, Grand Forks police were dispatched to a Dollar Tree discount store after a caller reported employees there weren’t wearing masks over their noses. The next night, officers were called to a Valley Dairy gas station following a report that customers weren’t wearing masks there at all.

Both are violations of a Nov. 13 mask mandate issued by Dirk Wilke, North Dakota’s interim health officer, but neither resulted in a fine. That’s largely because Grand Forks-area police and sheriff’s deputies are taking an education-first approach to Wilke’s order, which requires people across the state to wear masks or other face coverings in businesses, indoor public spaces and outdoor public spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained. The mandate aims to slow the spread of a novel coronavirus that has spread like wildfire across the United States, particularly in North Dakota.

“With the mandate in place, customers are required to wear masks while in the store,” Grand Forks Police Officer Jesse Younggren reported telling a pair of Valley Dairy employees. The Herald is not naming any of the people on whom the police have thus far been called because no charges have been filed.

As of Wednesday morning, the Grand Forks Police Department had responded to 11 calls related to the mandate since it took effect Saturday, Nov. 14. Of those 11 calls, reports were taken for four: one report involved an individual in a residential area, and three involved people inside local businesses.

“We want to emphasize education, getting people to voluntarily comply, because obviously it's a big step,” Lt. Travis Benson, one of two GFPD patrol commanders, said of the department’s plan to enforce Wilke’s mandate. “It's very different from anything that anybody around us historically (has) seen.”

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The maximum fine for violating the state’s mask mandate is $1,000. If police here find a person or business to be a recurring problem, Benson said they would refer them to the Grand Forks County State’s Attorney’s Office for charges. He didn’t offer any specifics when asked which other laws are enforced similarly.

Other agencies

It’s a different story countywide: the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office has not received any complaints or responded to any reports of violations as of Wednesday afternoon, according to GFCSO Capt. Joel Lloyd.

When asked whether he and his deputies intend to enforce the order, Grand Forks County Sheriff Andy Schneider was vague in his answer, and did not respond to multiple requests to clarify. Lloyd also did not respond to a request for comment.

“I assure you that our office will be handling this situation in a manner that is acceptable to continue to serve our community in the areas that are the most demanding to keep our community a safe place to live, work and travel,” Schneider said in a Tuesday, Nov. 17, email. “The Sheriff’s Office will continue to respond to calls for service as we have all taken an oath to do. We will continue to provide guidance and education on calls for service, as we have always done. Our agency will continue to use discretion on any calls for service, on a case-by-case basis, again as we have always done.”

Across the Red River in East Grand Forks, police were called a handful of times for alleged violations of Minnesota’s statewide mask mandate shortly after it went into effect. But, Chief Mike Hedlund said, those calls have tapered off since then, and he couldn’t recall his department citing anyone for not following the state’s mask requirements.

Like in Grand Forks, Eastside police also aim to educate residents there first before moving to citations. If a business called to complain about a patron not wearing a mask, the strategy, Hedlund said, would be to tell the patron they can put on a mask, leave the business or be arrested for trespassing.

“We wouldn’t necessarily cite them for the mask,” Hedlund said. “We’d be citing them for the trespass, for the refusing to leave.”

Police reports

Of the 11 mask-related calls for service Grand Forks police have fielded to date, officers filed case reports in four. Here are summaries of each:

–Just before 9 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14, Grand Forks Police Cpl. William Hahn II was dispatched to the 100 block of Cherry Street for a complaint of suspicious activity. A caller complained that a woman was not wearing a mask and spitting.

When the officer arrived, the caller told him that the woman appeared to be speaking to people who weren’t there and spitting at them.

The officer went to the apartment where the woman is believed to live. He knocked on the door, and heard no movement inside the apartment. The case is considered inactive.

–At about 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, Grand Forks Police Officer Brandan Steffan was dispatched to the Dollar Tree at 1719 S. Washington St. for a report of a mask violation. A caller complained that Dollar Tree employees were wearing their masks under their noses and people in the store were not wearing masks.

Steffan wrote in his report that he sat outside the Dollar Tree for a few moments before entering the store, and did not observe any employees or customers in violation of the mask mandate.

A Dollar Tree employee told Steffan that while there have been incidents of customers coming in without masks on, it only happens infrequently, and their corporate orders are not to confront customers who don’t wear masks.

The caller said she called the Grand Forks Public Health Department and was told that they couldn’t do anything about the alleged mask violations because it is a mandate now, according to Stefan’s report.

The case is considered inactive.

–At about 6:40 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, Grand Forks Police Cpl. Christopher Brown was dispatched to Best Buy for a report of a person not wearing a mask.

A Best Buy employee told Brown that a man entered the store, was told to put on a mask, and refused, but continued to walk further into the store. The employee said he wanted the man to leave.

Brown approached and identified the man, who said he would not put on a mask, but agreed to leave. No further action was taken. The case is considered inactive.

–Just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17, Grand Forks Police Officer Jesse Younggren was dispatched to the Valley Dairy located at 207 First Ave. S. for a report of customers inside not wearing masks. The caller said that employees had told her brother that they could not make the customers put on masks.

Younggren spoke with two employees at the store. According to his report, the employees told him that their manager had instructed them not to refuse service to people not wearing masks. Younggren informed the employees that there is a mandate requiring mask use in place, and the employees should speak with their manager to “get on the same page about that,” the report stated. One employee said that he worked with the manager the following day, and would speak with her then.

The caller requested no further action, and the case is considered inactive.