People in Grand Forks County are no longer legally required to wear COVID-19 masks in public.

Joel Walz, the county’s health officer, on Monday rescinded a mask mandate that he put in place about two months ago as a statewide mandate expired. That means residents won’t be compelled by the county or city governments to wear a mask while they’re out and about, but individual businesses can still require them for their patrons.

“It’s still good to wear your mask. We’re not out of COVID yet and it’s still out there,” Walz told the Herald Monday afternoon, shortly after his decision to rescind the order. “We just removed that enforcement mechanism where it doesn't have to be an infraction anymore, but it's still a really good idea and my strongest recommendation that you keep wearing masks.”

Walz said last week that he would rescind the order if, for 14 consecutive days, the “health officer’s dashboard” a local coronavirus gauge put together by Grand Forks Public Health workers – indicated that the virus posed a “low” risk to county residents, as measured by reported cases, hospitalizations and other metrics. The gauge gives each of those figures a weighted score, then spits out a consolidated number that corresponds to a color-coded risk level: green “low” risk, yellow “moderate” risk, orange “high” risk and red “severe” risk. Monday was the 14th day it indicated a low risk.

"The numbers are good and it wasn’t going to stay forever,” Walz said of the mandate. “And when we have low cases, it just didn’t seem like we needed that level of authority where it needed to be an order anymore.”

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Walz said he mainly consulted with Michael Dulitz, the local health department’s opioid response coordinator who’s been pinch-hitting as a COVID data analyst for nearly a year. Beyond figures that measure the virus’ spread, countywide vaccination rates are relatively strong, especially among people 65 and older, Dulitz noted in an interview with the Herald. About 75% of people who are 65 and older have received their first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

Unlike Monday’s order rescinding the mandate, Walz said he does not have a hard-and-fast threshold for re-instituting another countywide mask order. But he and Dulitz both suggested that one would presumably be forthcoming if the gauge met or exceeded the orange, or “high,” risk category.

“Orange would probably be an area where it would probably make the most sense,” Dulitz said.

The dashboard had been in that category for about two months when Grand Forks City Hall officials instituted a citywide mask mandate, and it was pushing into the red, or “severe,” risk category when Walz first issued his countywide mandate.

Both requirements were quickly superseded by Gov. Doug Burgum’s statewide mask requirement, and Walz reinstated his own countywide mandate as the governor’s statewide one expired in January. At that point, the local COVID gauge still indicated that the virus posed a “high” risk to people in Grand Forks County, but for weeks it had been trending closer and closer to the yellow “moderate” category.

Other institutions have not followed Walz’s lead: staff at UND said Monday that they intend to keep their mask requirement for students and faculty on campus. Meloney Linder, vice president for marketing and communications at UND, said the university intends to keep its COVID safety guidelines for campus (which include masks) through the spring semester.

And, speaking of college, the Ralph Engelstad Arena is set to host a high-profile college hockey tournament that could draw many people to the Grand Cities area. Walz said he expects the arena will have some “pretty strong” mask policies in place.

“Presumably, that could bring some potential cases to town,” he said. “There’s always possibilities of things getting worse, and, if they do, we’ll probably have to put a new order in if it reaches to that serious level.”