Actions last week by city, county and state governments hopefully will help slow the spread of coronavirus in North Dakota. Why did it take so long for such a concerted effort? Perhaps because of traits we consider unique to North Dakota and rural states like it.
Forum News Service reporter Patrick Springer noted these phenomena in an interesting piece published Monday in the Herald.
Springer outlines two of the state’s distinguishing features – one obvious and one perceived. The former is North Dakota’s remoteness, and the possible belief that our wide-open spaces would help keep us safe from the coronavirus. The latter is that a strong streak of independence led to a slow response that has made North Dakota a COVID-19 hotspot.
Wrote Springer: “... the state’s remote location and largely rural makeup, with people spread apart over wide open spaces ... provided advantages that would seem to protect against a worst-case scenario.
“A variety of factors – a mixture of cultural and political attitudes, as well as the health profile of residents – help to explain the seeming paradox, according to experts.
“North Dakotans pride themselves on their self-reliance, but the individualistic streak that runs deeply through the state’s culture can be a detriment when dealing with a public health crisis that requires a strong community response.”
In review, last week brought a flurry of government actions, first from the county and city level and, finally, from Gov. Doug Burgum and state Health Officer Dirk Wilke.
Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski on Thursday issued an order affecting certain businesses where people gather, such as bars and restaurants. It limited occupancy, closed dance floors and bar games and required patrons to remain seated. Earlier, the City Council had enacted a mask resolution.
Friday, Grand Forks County Health Officer Joel Walz rightly signed a pandemic mitigation order that calls for every person in the county to wear a face covering in all indoor public places where they’re near someone with whom they don’t live and where they can’t maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance at all times.
And Friday evening, the state issued an order that supersedes those made earlier at the local level. It included a statewide mask mandate, occupancy limits on public-oriented businesses and the suspension of most high school winter sports.
What took so long? Were these aforementioned beliefs – our remoteness and independence – slowing that response? Was it political? Why did it take action on lower levels before it occurred at higher levels?
To be fair to the leaders involved, we have believed businesses must be allowed to remain open as many struggle to maintain solvency. Schools, we have said, should be open, too. And while we have opined on behalf of masks and mandates that require them, we notably hedged when it came to enforcement.
But as coronavirus cases continue to rise and as North Dakota leads the national news – along with South Dakota – it has become obvious that stronger action was needed.
People in this region are an independent lot. Eventually, however, common sense and leadership must override our sense of self-reliance.
That’s now happening. It was time.
Editor's note: This editorial was corrected to appropriately cite the author of the Forum News Service report that is referenced. The author of that report is Patrick Springer.