What does ‘moderate risk’ mean for Grand Forks businesses?

Governor's announcement tightens guidelines, reduces capacity

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference in Bismarck on Thursday, Sept. 3. Sign language interpreter Lindsey Solberg Herbel (left) stands behind Burgum. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

An updated coronavirus risk level determined by the state means new recommendations for Grand Forks County businesses.

It’s one of eight North Dakota counties that Gov. Doug Burgum on Thursday said would move from a green “low” risk level to a yellow “moderate” one under the state’s Smart Restart plan criteria. Thirteen other counties are moving in the other direction, and will formally be considered part of a “new normal" as well. The new designations are formally in place as of 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4.

The change means many businesses in Grand Forks and surrounding North Dakota communities will be asked to implement stricter precautions against the virus, which has quickly gained ground countywide over the past month.

Kalen Carver, managing partner at Texas Roadhouse, said his business will be following the recommendations for the "moderate risk" guidance of state Smart Restart protocols. That means, among other things, reducing the number of dine-in customers to 50%, when his restaurant had been hitting the 75% limit on weekends.

Beyond reducing dine-in service, the protocols for a medium-risk county ask bars and restaurants to restrict customers from serving their own food and beverages, use more contactless payment, close blackjack tables and dance floors, and stop using handheld entertainment devices and buzzers that alert patrons when their reservation is ready.


“I’d like to say that we were getting closer and closer to where we potentially were last year, and this is a big step backwards for us,” Carver said.

Carver said his business can make those changes because they are used to it. They did it earlier this year, when guidance first came out from the state, and restaurants were allowed to reopen to dine-in customers. Staff wear masks, partitions are in place between booths, and when things get busy, customers can wait in their cars until their tables are ready.

The restaurant can try to compensate for the loss of a quarter of its dine-in customers by focusing on take-out meals, but it's still going to have an impact.

“On top of the Canadian border remaining closed and now jumping back, I understand, I get it, but it by no means is going to do us any good here,” Carver said.

Joe Cozart, general manager of the Ramada Inn in Grand Forks, said the increased risk level won’t mean a lot of changes at his hotel, if any. The Ramada has already canceled gatherings there, rendering moot the reduction in capacity for events from 500 people to 250. Guests weren’t having events like weddings anyway, so it made sense not to offer them, which keeps employees safe.

“We don't want our staff to be exposed to large gatherings,” Cozart told the Herald.

The pool can remain open under the new guidelines, but Cozart said he hasn’t seen more than a dozen people in the pool at a time, and those who go swimming are family members. The kitchen is closed, and has been for a while, so guests either go out to eat, or use third-party delivery services to have meals brought in.

A robust construction season in the region has kept his hotel reasonably full this summer, Cozart said, and it has been at 100% occupancy for the last two weeks. It hasn’t been necessary, Cozart said, to struggle to keep all services open at the hotel.


“Since we're getting killed anyhow, I think we're going to actually come out better if we, as a business strategy, go in the direction that this is taking us instead of fighting it,” Cozart said. “And that's what we did, so we’ve really landed on our feet.”

But the state’s protocols don’t have any force behind them.

“There's no enforcement as of right now. But keep in mind if restaurants or businesses don't follow these guidance, it's likely that the spread will continue, that they could likely have more employees that are going to contract COVID-19,” said Tiffany Boespflug, a registered nurse and health promotion team leader at Grand Forks Public Health. “It's to protect them and keep the businesses open, so I think that would have enough buy-in in itself that the businesses and the restaurant owners would want to stay open and they want to protect their customers and their employees.”

Burleigh and Morton Counties are also moving into the yellow “moderate risk” category, and members of the counties’ joint COVID task force were presented Friday morning with slides that indicate the state’s “guiding metrics of assessment” for the change, including the two-week averages of the number of active cases per 10,000 residents, the number of tests per 10,000 residents, and the proportion of tests that come back positive. It was unclear as of this article’s publication date why those are only some of the several metrics outlined in the Smart Restart plan itself.

North Dakota Department of Health data compiled by the Herald indicates that active cases in Grand Forks County have risen from 73 people on Aug. 1 to 494 on Friday, and the seven-day average percentage of positive tests of unique individuals rose from about 4% to 30%.

State and local health workers generally use the number of positive cases per test, rather than positives per tests of unique individuals, and the 14-day average of that figure, too, rose from about 1.8% in early August to 7.4% on Friday.


Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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