BISMARCK — North Dakota's statewide mask mandate will expire at 8 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 18, as COVID-19 cases continue to drop in the state.

Medical professionals have widely credited North Dakota's mask mandate with reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the state, but Gov. Doug Burgum said on Friday, Jan. 15, he believes "personal responsibility" can carry North Dakota through the rest of the pandemic.

The Republican governor said the state still strongly encourages residents to wear masks in public, noting that "the science doesn't change when the mandate goes away." Burgum also acknowledged that residents should continue to comply with local mask mandates, like one that Fargo leaders recently extended until mid-February.

The statewide mandate originally went into effect on Nov. 14 when North Dakota was in the midst of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country. After months of hesitance, Burgum said a severe lack of hospital capacity created the need for a mask requirement. The state's COVID-19 case count has fallen dramatically in the last two months and medical centers that were strained by staffing shortages and high admissions have now mostly recovered.

The more than 80% drop in active COVID-19 cases since mid-November heavily influenced the decision not to extend the mandate, Burgum said. He noted that there is also some "fatigue" with mask-wearing among residents, and abandoning the requirement provides "a chance for us to take a breather."

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Burgum also announced that occupancy restrictions on restaurants, bars and event venues will become optional guidelines at 8 a.m. on Monday. It means eating and drinking establishments can soon resume full service if they choose to ignore the state's recommendation to limit occupancy to 65% of normal levels.

The restrictions on public-serving businesses started around the time as the original mask mandate, but Burgum has gradually loosened them, saying he has sympathy for residents struggling to maintain a livelihood.

The moves on masks and business restrictions announced Friday earned Burgum praise from his own party. Across the aisle, eliminating the mask requirement was viewed as an unnecessary risk.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said the governor "did the right thing," but he urged North Dakotans to remain vigilant with mask-wearing and social distancing to prevent another flare-up of the virus and the restrictions that would come with it. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he's supportive of the governor's actions and believes residents should be trusted to take virus prevention into their own hands.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said he was disappointed Burgum will let the mandate run out, adding that the positive effects of the cost-efficient measure are evident in the state's decreased virus numbers since November. Boschee said he hopes North Dakotans have become used to the practice of wearing masks and will continue to do so even without the requirement.

The North Dakota Medical Association, which represents doctors in the state, released a statement that did not take a stance on the mask mandate's impending expiration but asked residents to continue donning face coverings.

"NDMA encourages people to continue wearing masks. They are effective in preventing transmission," the statement read. "We hope that local leaders support mask use so that schools and businesses can remain open and hospitals and clinics can continue to be available for patients that need care while we continue to increase the number of people that are immunized in North Dakota."

State records 8 more COVID-19 deaths

Earlier in the day, the North Dakota Department of Health reported eight COVID-19 deaths and a jump in virus-related hospitalizations.

The latest deaths came from all over the state, including two from Ward County and one each from Golden Valley, Grand Forks, McHenry, Ransom, Ramsey and Stutsman counties. With the death in rural Golden Valley, only nearby Billings and Slope counties have not had a resident die from COVID-19. Golden Valley, which lies on the western edge of the state, also leads North Dakota in active cases per capita.

The department says 1,373 North Dakotans have died from the illness since March. At least 820 of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. There are 48 infected nursing home residents in the state.

The state has averaged 2.4 COVID-19 deaths a day in January, way down from December.

The state health department reported a decrease of 89 active cases on Friday, bringing the total to 1,675. COVID-19 hospitalizations sit at 88, an increase of ten over the previous day.

The department reported 233 new cases on Friday, including:

  • 47 from Cass County, which includes Fargo.
  • 22 each from Burleigh County, which includes Bismarck, and Ward County, which includes Minot.

About 3.8% of the residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, and an average of 4.1% of those tested in the last two weeks got a positive result. Forty-eight of Friday's positives came off rapid tests, while the rest came off traditional tests.

As of Thursday, nearly 53,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in North Dakota as residents over 75 begin to receive their first doses.

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