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Protesters at Capitol push governor to reopen North Dakota businesses

Gov. Doug Burgum has ordered the closure of concert venues, movie theaters, gyms, nail salons, massage parlors and barber shops since the outbreak of COVID-19 began in mid-March. The order, which also mandates that restaurants and bars stop in-house service, was extended last week until at least April 30.

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Roland Riemers, who is running for North Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on the Democratic-NPL ticket, holds a megaphone on the stairs of the state Capitol at a protest on Monday, April 20. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — Frustrated by business closures and perceived infringements on personal liberties, about 150 protesters gathered Monday, April 20, on the grounds of the North Dakota Capitol to ask the state's top officeholder to "reopen" the state.

The outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, has prompted state leaders across the country to take unprecedented steps in the name of slowing the rate of infection.

Gov. Doug Burgum has ordered the closure of concert venues, movie theaters, gyms, nail salons, massage parlors and barber shops since the outbreak of COVID-19 began in mid-March. The order, which also mandates that restaurants and bars stop in-house service, was extended last week until at least April 30.

However, Burgum is one of eight governors who has not issued a statewide stay-at-home order that may further restrict residents from leaving their homes. For that reason, Monday's demonstration in Bismarck as a mass gathering was completely legal.

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Protesters carried "Don't Tread on Me" flags and signs with quotes about freedom and injustice from Benjamin Franklin and Ronald Reagan. Several speakers shared their thoughts on the closures through a megaphone, but strong winds swallowed most of their messages.

Linton resident Alexis Wangler is a founding member of Health Freedom North Dakota, the advocacy group behind the protest. Wangler said she helped organize the protest on Facebook because she has friends and family whose hair salons and cosmetics businesses have been force to shut down under Burgum's order. Wangler said her job as a rural mail carrier has not been impacted by the closures.

"I feel like all businesses are essential and all livelihoods are essential," Wangler said. "That's why I said to a couple of different people, 'do we want to say anything about this?"

Wangler said the essence of the protest is standing up for the right to operate private businesses and speak out against perceived government overreach. She said those liberties have been challenged under Burgum's orders.

"We want to exercise our First Amendment rights — our freedom of speech and freedom to assemble — and not have that limited by government," Wangler said. "I would say that all across the nation, the executive orders have been violating people's rights.

Burgum has not issued any statewide executive orders that limit freedom of speech or assembly, but he has encouraged residents to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. When asked about the planned protest at a press conference last week, the Republican governor encouraged residents to exercise their First Amendment rights, so long as they stand 6 feet apart from one another.

Wangler said prior to the protest she and her friends would abide by the social distancing and hygiene guidelines set out by health officials, but she couldn't speak for the protesters she had never met. About half of the protesters stood 6 feet away from those outside of their family unit, but many others stood shoulder-to-shoulder facing the Capitol and some shook hands with friends and new acquaintances. State and national health officials have strongly discouraged people from making any kind of physical contact with anyone outside of their homes.

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Roland Riemers, who is running for the state's lone seat U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat, outfitted his truck for the protest with painted signs reading "Re-open Now." The frequent political candidate and Libertarian belief-holder said he favored self-imposed restrictions over government mandates and that COVID-19 is not as severe a threat as it is being portrayed.

"The whole idea of closing (businesses) to begin with was we had to give time for the hospitals to get organized, so they can handle the influx of patients," Riemers said. "Well, the hospitals are basically empty right now. We've got the capacity, and we need to get businesses going because too many people are suffering."

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Roland Riemers, who is running for North Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on the Democratic-NPL ticket, stands in front of his truck and the Capitol building at a Bismarck protest to reopen businesses on Monday, April 20. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Over the last week, North Dakota has seen a steep increase in COVID-19 cases as more than 100 residents with ties to the LM Wind Power manufacturing plant in Grand Forks have tested positive for the illness. Seventeen North Dakotans are hospitalized with the illness as of Monday morning and thirteen have died since the outbreak began.

Kolette Kramer drove two hours south from Towner for the protest, which she says is about her children's future. Kramer, who noted she opposes vaccinations, said she worries fear of the virus will keep businesses closed for far too long.

"My biggest fear is there's no exit plan for (the closures)," Kramer said. "I see no sense in waiting two weeks or six months or 18 months."

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Kolette Kramer, of Towner, holds a sign at a protest asking Gov. Doug Burgum to allow businesses to reopen on Monday, April 20. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service


Burgum has frequently called on residents to take personal responsibility to slow the spread of the virus by following guideline from health officials and staying home when possible.

Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said the protesters are showing a lack of personal responsibility by gathering together and could potentially hinder the state's ability to reopen businesses if they contract the illness and bring it back to their respective communities.

"I don't think gathering in a crowd of 150 or more people is demonstrating that you're committed to making sure we can open up business," Boschee said.

Despite their partisan differences, Boschee and Burgum agree that pitting public health against a strong and open economy presents a false dichotomy. Both politicians argue the economy cannot thrive without a healthy community, so slowing the spread of COVID-19 must be the state's top priority.

Similar protests have recently sprung up throughout the country, including in Minnesota and Michigan. President Donald Trump has promoted the message that states should lift restrictive orders and allow businesses to reopen in the coming weeks.

Some of the protesters in Bismarck wore red "Make America Great Again" hats, but others, like Wangler, said they wouldn't consider themselves wholehearted supporters of Trump.

Burgum has not tipped his hand as to whether businesses closed by mandate will be permitted to reopen next month, saying that the decision largely depends on how the outbreak evolves in the state and the amount of COVID-19 testing that can be performed.

The governor has also mentioned that his office also receives criticism from residents who believe the restrictions should be tighter to prevent the spread of the virus.

An online petition asking Burgum to issue a mandatory stay-at-home order has gained more than 5,000 signatures since it was created last month.

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Roland Riemers, who is running for North Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on the Democratic-NPL ticket, stands in front of his truck and the Capitol building at a Bismarck protest to reopen businesses on Monday, April 20. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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