North Dakota governor orders statewide mask mandate as COVID-19 cases surge

November 16, 2020

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — After months of resisting ordering the people of North Dakota to wear masks and limit the size of gatherings, the state’s Republican governor relented in an effort to stem a coronavirus surge that is among the worst in the U.S. and that threatens to overwhelm the state’s hospitals.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s executive order Friday night came as a surprise and only hours before the state recorded new daily records for hospitalizations and infections. Throughout the pandemic, the former software executive had been leaving it to individuals to take personal responsibility for slowing the spread of the virus, beseeching the public during his weekly press briefings to wear masks but emphasizing a “light touch” by government.

But in a video message announcing his new restrictions, which took effect Saturday and will remain in effect until Dec. 13, a somber Burgum said, “Our situation has changed, and we must change with it.”

In a news release, he said the state’s doctors and nurses “need our help, and they need it now.”

After a spring in which North Dakota had relatively few COVID-19 cases, the disease spread rapidly over the summer and has only picked up steam since. As of Saturday, there were only 18 free Intensive Care Unit beds and 178 non-ICU beds in hospitals throughout the state.

Health care professionals and some community leaders had been pleading for months with Burgum to impose such restrictions. On a tour of Bismarck last month, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, described the state’s mask use and COVID-19 protocols as the worst she had seen anywhere in the country.

Rachel Heintz, who works as an emergency room nurse at a Bismarck hospital, said Saturday that she was relieved a mask order was issued.

“It’s about time,” she said.

Nurses and other health care professionals have been frustrated that their calls for a mask mandate had been ignored, which probably caused increased cases, deaths, grief and an overwhelming burden on hospital workers, she said.

“Nurses are used to shouldering a big burden, but when you see us cracking, you know how big of a toll this is taking on us,” she said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Under the order, people throughout the state must wear face coverings inside of businesses and indoor public settings, as well as in outdoor public settings where physical distancing isn’t possible. It includes exceptions for children under age 5, individuals with a medical or mental health condition or disability that makes it unreasonable to wear a mask, and religious services.

Failure to comply comes with a penalty of up to $1,000, though it’s unclear how the order will be enforced.

Grand Forks Police Sgt. Barb McLeod said the department was reviewing the order.

“We’re going to focus on education and will try very hard not to file charges,” she said.

Officers may respond to a call if from someone reports that another person isn’t wearing a face covering, she said.