Stopping short of saying he wants a citywide mask mandate, Armacost says UND needs consistency in COVID measures between campus and city
As UND deals with a surge of coronavirus cases, UND President Andrew Armacost says the university would like to see consistency in COVID-19 measures between the campus and the city.
Masks and other social distancing requirements are in place at UND, but masks are not required off campus. The city of Grand Forks does not have a mask mandate.
Armacost, when asked directly, has consistently stopped short of saying he would prefer a citywide mask mandate; instead, he simply says he would like a "consistent policy" in place between the city and the university.
“Although the decision about a citywide mandate rests in the hands of elected officials, what I would like is a consistent policy that allows us to consistently have expectations for our students, faculty and staff,” Armacost said Tuesday, Sept. 1. “On campus we have a certain set of rules, in the community we have another set of rules.”
Armacost said during Monday’s City Council meeting that the university doesn’t have enforcement mechanisms to ensure students are abiding by the rules when they are off campus.
“That is the jurisdiction of the city because they are residents of the city,” he said.
UND leaders say the university has the capacity to deal with its ongoing COVID-19 caseload, but concerns about what happens when the university hits that capacity are becoming more prevalent. The university has 237 active, self-reported cases of COVID-19 as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1. The university’s COVID dashboard lists 745 individuals in quarantine or isolation, 156 of whom are in hotels contracted by the university.
UND has around 322 hotels set aside for COVID isolations and quarantines, according to Jed Shivers, UND’s vice president of finance. The university may have the ability to get more rooms if needed.
Armacost said the university feels pretty good about its hotel capacity, but what happens if the university hits its limit, or if the load of contact tracing becomes too much?
“At some point our systems can’t handle that, our resources can’t handle that at that level,” Armacost said Monday. “Without the prevention steps up front I fear that we will get there.”
UND’s positivity rate is now around 10%.
Bret Weber, a member of the Grand Forks City Council and an associate professor at UND, said Grand Forks' COVID situation is "very serious" and spoke at length Monday night to urge city leaders to seriously consider a citywide mask mandate.
Others on the council pushed against a mandate, noting Minnesota had its largest spike in cases over the weekend and the state has had a mask mandate since the start of August.
"I'm not completely convinced it will work in the city of Grand Forks," council member Danny Weigel said. Weigel is also member of UND's police department.
Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski also opposed the idea.
Council members said more education would be needed on the topic.
The city did not adopt a mask mandate Monday. On Saturday, Aug. 29, Bochenski ordered bars citywide to close by 11 p.m. for the indefinite future after meeting with Gov. Doug Burgum and Dr. Deborah Birx, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
At present, the university does not intend to move to remote instruction in the immediate future, Armacost said. But during Monday’s City Council meeting, Armacost said he worries what closing the campus would mean, both for the university and the city.
“What I fear for the city is that if we have to shut down the campus, our students go home and the economic impact on the city is dramatic as well,” he said. “I want to avoid that. I want to keep the students in school. I want to keep the faculty working. I want to make sure we do it in a safe way and that that really benefits the city of Grand Forks.”
Altru’s capacity for COVID patients is holding steady.
Altru said that as of Tuesday morning there were three inpatients with COVID-19 in the hospital. The hospital has a total of 20 beds in its COVID units, according to Annie Bonzer, an Altru spokeswoman. She said the hospital has been “quite busy with non-COVID patients,” which impacts its overall staffing needs.
Altru doesn’t anticipate a high volume of COVID-related patients soon “given the trend in age range of those testing positive in our community and what we know about how those in their 20s and 30s typically manage COVID,” Bonzer said in an email.
“We are working closely with public health to understand our COVID + patient population so we remain prepared to care for those who need testing, treatment or hospitalization,” she said.
Last week, Armacost said around 30% of the student population had been tested for the virus, but that number seems to be trending upward after the university held more testing events over the last week, including one at which 1,400 – including students, faculty, staff and members of the public – were tested on Tuesday.
While exact numbers were unavailable Tuesday, Rosy Dub, director of UND student health, said the testing event was “dominated” by students.
Two more testing events are scheduled for this week, including one on Wednesday where an additional 1,400 tests will be available to the campus community and the public, and one on Friday, with 600 tests available.
WDAY reporter Matt Henson contributed to this story.