BISMARCK — North Dakota officials have encouraged restaurants, fitness centers and personal care businesses looking to reopen Friday, May 1, to follow specific sets of guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Doug Burgum announced Monday, April 27, that closed businesses can reopen at the end of the week if the state continues to see a low rate of positive tests for COVID-19. Last month, the Republican governor ordered the closure of concert venues, movie theaters, gyms, barbershops, nail salons, massage parlors and tattoo shops, as well as restaurants and bars for on-site service.

Most of the closed businesses can welcome customers back this weekend if they follow the state's first phase of “ND Smart Restart protocols,” which Burgum and Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer announced at a press conference Tuesday, April 28.

Burgum said he would clarify in an executive order Wednesday which of the guidelines are mandated by law and which are merely strong suggestions. He added that all closed businesses may choose to remain closed if they feel uncomfortable reopening.

The guidelines differ for eating establishments, gyms and cosmetology-related businesses, but putting space between people and wearing protective equipment are common threads. Professional organizations in the state helped craft the guidelines, Kommer said.

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Under the guidelines, reopening restaurants and bars would have to limit the number of patrons to half of normal capacity, move tables to be 6 feet apart and close dance floors and blackjack tables. Standing in bars would be discouraged, tables would be limited to 10 patrons and staff would have to go to great lengths to clean surfaces.

Nail salons, barbershops and waxing studios are asked to screen employees for signs of illness, increase the distance between work stations and offer hand sanitizer to customers. The guidelines say that employees must wear face masks, while patrons are encouraged to do so when possible.

There are similar guidelines for massage parlors and tattoo and piercing shops, which are also prohibited from taking walk-in appointments.

Fitness centers would have to limit participation in fitness classes, space equipment 6 feet apart and provide protective equipment to staff cleaning equipment and washing towels. Spin classes and other cardio-intensive classes would still be prohibited due to the high rate of exhalation. Locker rooms would also be shut and no group sports with more than 10 participants would be allowed.

Burgum said the state will provide guidelines to movie theaters Wednesday so they could opt to reopen Friday as well. However, the governor noted large music and entertainment venues will not be permitted to open yet because of concerns over the large number of people that would gather in one space.

Schools will remain closed for now as the state's 175 districts continue to teach students via distance learning programs, Burgum said. He noted that returning children to schools would be like "turning on the stadium lights at midnight" since it would immediately put large groups of people in a confined setting and greatly increase the risk of spreading the illness. Burgum added that districts had also expressed unease about the cost of disinfecting facilities every night.

The governor said great concern remains for the state's most vulnerable residents: people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions. He strongly urged residents who fall into those categories to stay home for at least another two weeks after the closure's end. Burgum noted Monday that he's not at all considering allowing visitation at nursing homes to resume.

"As we start to have more transmissible contact moments through personal care businesses, bars, restaurants and gyms... we won't know if we've opened the dial too much right away," Burgum said. "While we're learning about how much transmission may be occurring as we go back to having some more high-contact businesses open, those that are most vulnerable would be advised to stay home."

Burgum said the decision to allow businesses to reopen was based on eight criteria, including testing capabilities, health care capacity and ability to trace the source of the virus in newly infected patients. The state has checked enough of the boxes to begin a "smart restart," he said. The low rate of positive tests and the comparatively high amount of tests completed also influenced the decision, Burgum said.

Earlier in the day, the state Department of Health confirmed 49 new cases of COVID-19.

The total number of positive tests for the virus in North Dakota is up to 991, but 409 people have recovered from the illness, including a single-day high of 59 on Tuesday. There are 25 residents hospitalized with the illness, up 2 from Monday.

Nineteen North Dakotans, including 12 Cass County residents, have now succumbed to the illness, which has claimed more than 55,000 lives nationwide.

Forty-one of the new cases Tuesday came from Cass County, which encompasses Fargo and West Fargo. North Dakota's most populous county now has 472 known cases — more than double the amount of any other county and about 48% of the state's total. The department no longer lists the age ranges and genders of the newly infected residents.

The department announced 1,289 test results Tuesday, marking the fifth straight day it has reported more than 1,000 test results.

The other eight new cases Tuesday came from Grand Forks, Stark, Mountrail and Stutsman counties.

A total of 23,723 tests for the virus have been reported by the state, and 35 counties now have at least one known case of the illness. There are still no reported cases from 18 rural counties. However, Burgum has previously said that the cases are reported based on patients' mailing addresses rather than their actual location in the state, so it is unknown where infected patients are isolating or seeking medical help.

Reporter Joe Bowen contributed to this report. As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.