BISMARCK — While Fargo and Minot became the first two North Dakota cities to implement a mask-wearing mandate, other cities are saying the spread of COVID-19 in their area is not severe enough to enact a similar measure.
As the state continues to lead the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita and Gov. Doug Burgum refuses to enact a statewide mask mandate to mitigate the virus' spread, cities are weighing the pros and cons of implementing what has become a polarizing mask-wearing mandate.
Fargo and Minot catalyzed conversations surrounding mask mandates on Monday, Oct. 19, when Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney used his emergency powers and the Minot City Council voted 5-2 to enact mask mandates.
The two cities authorized mandates requiring residents to wear face coverings in all indoor and outdoor environments where wearers are exposed to nonhousehold members and where social distancing of 6 feet or more cannot be maintained. There is no penalty for noncompliance in either city.
Cass County, which includes Fargo and West Fargo, reported 116 positive cases per 10,000 people in the last 14 days, according to the North Dakota Department of Health. Ward County, which encompasses Minot, reported 112 positive cases per 10,000 people in the last 14 days.
Active cases statewide reached a record 6,032 on Tuesday, Oct. 20, and have more than doubled since Oct. 4 — a little more than two weeks ago.
Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken recently co-signed a letter along with four other mayors of the state's largest cities that urged North Dakotans to wear masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19. However, Bakken said he is not in favor of a mask-wearing mandate for Bismarck as there are multiple ways to help slow COVID-19's spread.
"It's only one layer. What's next? Are we going to mandate washing hands? Are we going to mandate hand sanitizer?" Bakken asked. "A mask is one piece of the equation. It's not the 'be all end all.' If it were, everybody would wear one and we'd be done with this by now."
He said there were no plans at the city level to discuss a mask mandate as of Tuesday, and unless data shows there is a "magic bullet" that mitigates the spread of COVID-19, he would not consider using his emergency powers for a mandate.
Burleigh County, which includes Bismarck, had 171 positive cases per 10,000 people in the last 14 days, according to the state health department.
Last month, the Morton County Commission unanimously voted down a mask mandate even though the spread of COVID-19 in the area continues to increase. Mandan Mayor Tim Helbling did not respond to phone calls requesting comment, but he told Forum News Service last month he does not think there's enough evidence to prove masks are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19.
"I believe in people's freedoms and their right to choose," Helbling said in September. "At this point, I don't think there's enough scientific information out there to even try to go after a mandate."
Morton County, which encompasses Mandan, had 170 positive cases per 10,000 people in the last 14 days, the state health department reported.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have mask mandates, according to AARP, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July said "cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus."
West Fargo Mayor Bernie Dardis said the city is considering COVID-19 prevention options that "appeal to the public," including a mask mandate, directive or another public health strategy.
The West Fargo City Commission will hold a special meeting Wednesday, Oct. 21, to discuss a potential mask mandate similar to Fargo's.
Dardis said West Fargo is a little different from Fargo in that it has a smaller population and is "more guarded" when it comes to making decisions about COVID-19.
"What we're doing is (making) a very strong appeal to the public that we're in a circumstance that is getting worse," he said. "We're just appealing to the public to do what they can to knock this virus down."
Rural Stutsman County had 86 positive cases per 10,000 people in the last 14 days. Jamestown Mayor Dwaine Heinrich said if COVID-19 spread becomes worse in the area he might implement a mask-wearing mandate.
"I don't think we're quite there yet, but if it keeps going the wrong way we're going to have to do something," he said.
In a statement, Williston city officials said they are not considering a mask mandate but have not ruled out the possibility of introducing one. Williams County, which encompasses Williston, had 110 positive cases per 10,000 people in the last 14 days.
Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski also did not respond to phone calls requesting comment about whether Grand Forks is considering a citywide mask mandate. Grand Forks County reported 124 positive cases per 10,000 people in the last 14 days.
Though some mayors were hesitant to implement a mask-wearing mandate in their cities, each recognized the importance of wearing a mask to protect others.
"For those in the public that aren't wearing masks, please consider it," Dardis said. "The reality of it is we have to do whatever we can to protect the safety of our populace in general, and that's why we're having these discussions."
Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.