Port: How much longer will Americans choose to obey a quarantine?

Taylor Marquart stocks cheese products in the cooler on Wednesday, April 15, at the Osgood Hornbacher's in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — "You would be singing a different tune if you didn't have a paycheck coming in."

That's a response from a reader.

I got it yesterday when I expressed skepticism about lifting North Dakota's COVID-19 quarantine restrictions as a group of conservative North Dakota lawmakers from across the state asked in a letter yesterday to Gov. Doug Burgum.

As of the most recent report from the Department of Health, our state has only 13 people hospitalized currently due to the virus. Despite being in the top 10 in terms of per-capita testing, North Dakota has nearly the lowest rate of positive tests.

The lawmakers cited these numbers to bolster their argument for re-opening the state.


"The problem with citing North Dakota's relatively low rates of infections from the COVID-19 virus is that we may very well be enjoying those low rates because of the very restrictions these lawmakers want lifted," is what I wrote in rebuttal to their argument.

Then the reader rebutted me.

And you know what? He's got a point.

As of this morning, some 22 million Americans , nationally, have filed for unemployment in the last four weeks.

North Dakota's latest unemployment figures will be released tomorrow, Friday, and "Whatever is reported...the real number is worse," as University of North Dakota economist David Flynn put it .

"The March unemployment rate will be released Friday, and unlike previous releases, this report is likely to be outdated as soon as it is printed," Flynn writes.

The question many are asking is: When will political leaders decide to lift restrictions and let Americans get back to business as usual?

The more pertinent question may be: How much longer can the government enforce a quarantine?


An important factor often overlooked in public policy debates is the government's actual ability to enforce a given policy.

We can make laws and policy, sure, but how many people obey is usually a product of how many people feel they are just.

Did you know North Dakota has a use tax on things you buy in other states? We do. "The purchase price of tangible personal property purchased outside of the state for storage, use or consumption within the state is subject to a use tax," the Tax Commissioner's website states .

You haven't been paying this tax. About the only people who do are the tax commissioner, and whoever else is running to be tax commissioner when the office is on the ballot.

The last time I asked current Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger about the use tax, he said just six people had paid it the previous year (including himself).

This tax should be producing millions and millions of dollars in revenues, but it doesn't because we've all mostly decided to ignore it.

The state could try to make us pay it, but what are they going to do? Start searching every car at our borders?

We face the same problem with the quarantine policies.


They're working, so far, because most of us are choosing to obey them.

What happens when growing numbers of citizens, feeling desperate or increasingly unconvinced of the efficacy of the policy, decide to stop obeying?

There aren't enough police, or other enforcement officials, in any part of this country to stop Americans from breaking quarantine en masse if they get fed up.

I don't want that outcome. I'm very much in the this-thing-is-serious camp. I can't speak for other parts of the country, but I don't think North Dakota is ready yet to lift our restrictions.

Still, we all need to recognize that there is likely a clock on how long we can effectively lock things down, and we're starting to see signs that it's running out.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
What To Read Next
Get Local