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Grand Forks senators split on mask mandate ban

Grand Forks senators split on the bill 2-2, with Sens. Ray Holmberg and Scott Meyer, both Republicans, voting in favor of the bill. Sen. JoNell Bakke, a Democrat, voted against the bill, as did Republican Sen. Curt Kreun.

North Dakota State Capitol. (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)
North Dakota State Capitol. (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)

Grand Forks’ state senators were divided this week over a bill banning state-level mask mandates — even as the chamber approved it.

The legislation, HB 1323, would bar state officials from making mask mandates. The version passed by the state Senate this week is slightly different than a House version, though, which would have also prohibited local leaders from instituting mask mandates. The vote comes after months of debate over mask use; although public health experts recommend wearing them, mandating that citizens use them has become a political flash point.

The result of the 30-17 vote in the Senate means the House will, once again, consider the matter. It’s not clear if the bill will win enough votes to overcome a veto from Gov. Doug Burgum.

The vote showed senators split over how to approach governing in the middle of a public health crisis, and was a sidelong glimpse into a running power struggle between the governor’s office and the Legislature.

RELATED: North Dakota Senate approves ban on state-issued mask mandates

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Grand Forks senators split on the bill 2-2, with Sens. Ray Holmberg and Scott Meyer, both Republicans, voting in favor of the bill. Sen. JoNell Bakke, a Democrat, voted against the bill, as did Republican Sen. Curt Kreun.

"I struggled with this bill, to be quite honest — when you start dealing with personal liberty and addressing a pandemic,” Meyer said. But he ultimately supported the bill because he felt it still left cities, counties and the like with local control.

Holmberg’s reasoning was similar. He said it would have been an “easy no-vote” if the bill had been kept in its broad form passed by the House, which would have banned even local groups from instituting mask mandates. But he said he’s glad to see local control kept intact.

That’s a sharp contrast with JoNell Bakke, who sees the issue as a matter of public safety. She said she wears a mask, regardless of how much she may not like it.

“First of all, we don't always have all the information. There’s information that we're not privy to that they know in the governor's office,” she said. “He needs to have the ability to do what's in the best interest of North Dakota citizens. I just don't agree with this idea that you take power away from someone because it inconveniences your life.”

Kreun said he voted against the bill because he knew his constituents back in his Grand Forks district — which includes UND and its medical school — would want him to. And, he said, he sees the bill as a sort of piecemeal take on the issue, one that doesn’t represent real long-range planning on masks.

“I understand frustration about this,” Kreun said, recalling shifting guidance on masks and how the pandemic began with some health officials saying they were ineffective, then some recommending one, then some recommending two. “The goal posts have been moved so many times that the frustration is high.”

Grand Forks had its own debate about masks in late October, during the weeks leading up to the worst of the virus’ surge in North Dakota. Ultimately, the city was among the first several local governments in North Dakota to enact a mask mandate — although a toothless one.

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RELATED: Grand Forks City Council unanimously passes mask mandate

It remains unclear what the future of the bill will be. Bakke predicted a veto; Meyer said it may survive.

"If you made me make a bet today, I'd think it would survive,” Meyer said. “You are just leaving it back to local control. I would hope it survives."

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
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