Interesting statistics related to the coronavirus pandemic come by way of students at UND.

This summer, students in public health and social work programs at the university spent six weeks observing customers at the Hugo’s grocery store chain in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. They recorded the number of customers who wore face masks, along with their presumed age and gender.

They noticed that mask use went up as word spread that Hugo’s would be implementing a companywide mask mandate for its customers.

For example: For four weeks in June and July, research showed that 38% of shoppers wore a mask. On July 20, the store announced it soon would require masks for its customers.

In the span between July 20 and July 28, mask use went up 30 percentage points, to 68% of all shoppers, according to the study’s findings.

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Importantly, the mask mandate didn’t actually go into effect until July 29.

Was it a case of mistaken facts? For instance, did customers misunderstand that the mandate was not yet in place? Or were they influenced by the mere suggestion that a mask mandate was coming and simply chose to form new habits in advance of the July 29 deadline?

The students presented this data to the Grand Forks City Council Monday evening. And in what we assume to be an odd coincidence, the group was presenting its conclusions at the very same time Fargo instituted a mask mandate. Soon thereafter, Minot did the same.

Grand Forks, which continues to be a leader in COVID-19 cases in the state, should do the same and declare a mask mandate.

Notably, neither Minot nor Fargo has attached any sort of punishment – fines, for instance – to the mandate. Critics say that means the mandates are hollow.

But is it?

The UND study suggests that many residents were swayed by mask requirements, even if they weren't enforced.

Movement in the right direction already is happening in Grand Forks with a recent message sent by Mayor Brandon Bochenski. The first-term mayor last week was among the five mayors of North Dakota’s largest cities to sign a letter urging residents to wear masks. Also signing that letter was Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney and Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma.

“To get us through this wave of COVID-19 and to keep our communities open, it’s crucial to be aware of our behaviors,” the mayors wrote. “WEAR A MASK when distancing cannot be maintained, wash your hands frequently, and sanitize frequently used surfaces.”

Unfortunately, in the week since the letter was published, COVID-19 cases have risen even further in Grand Forks and throughout the state. North Dakota now leads the nation in per-capita cases. This is a developing crisis.

The big-city mayors’ letter sent an important message, but two mayors have chosen to take it a step further.

We have concerns that a mandate would be difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, to fairly enforce. Is it even legal?

But a declaration still holds power and might help influence the populace, as the UND research perhaps shows.