After weeks of rising COVID-19 infection rates and strain on the state’s health care system and after months of calls from public health officials in North Dakota and nationwide, Gov. Doug Burgum announced Friday, Nov, 13 that a mask order would go into effect Saturday

Burgum announced a State Health Officer order requiring face coverings in a news release Friday. The order, signed by interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke requires face coverings to be worn in indoor businesses and indoor public settings as well as outdoor public settings where physical distancing isn’t possible.

The order is effective from Nov. 14 through Dec. 13. 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.

“Right now, the data demands a higher level of mitigation efforts to reverse these dangerous trends, to slow the spread of this virus and to avoid the need for economic shutdowns,” Burgum said in a video message announcing the mask order and several other measures. “Our situation has changed, and we must change with it. Tonight, we’re announcing four measures designed to reduce the spread of infections in our communities to protect our most vulnerable and to ensure hospital capacity.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that “adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns,” and that masks protect not only the people around the individual wearing the mask but also the mask wearer.

“The most effective weapon against COVID-19 is wearing a mask,” Wilke said. “This is a simple tool, but one that’s critical in helping protect our loved ones and slow the spread.”

On Monday, the McKenzie County Sheriff said his office would not enforce the mask order. Under state law, violation of a State Health Officer’s order could be punished as an infraction, with a fine of up to $1,000. In his announcement, Burgum asked law enforcement to prioritize education over enforcement.

In a letter explaining his decision, McKenzie County Sheriff Matthew Johansen cited the North Dakota Constitution and wrote enforcing a mask mandate on individuals or businesses would violate their liberty.

“As Sheriff, I believe the Constitution and Declaration of Independence say it best that we should each be free to govern ourselves as a state and as a nation,” Johansen wrote. “To that accord this mandate is not a law that we have passed or desired to see passed. With that established the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing any such mandate.”

Burgum signed an executive order today to implement the other mitigation measures, which take effect Monday, Nov. 16, and are as follows:

All bars, restaurants and food service establishments are limited to 50 percent of their licensed seated capacity, not to exceed 150 patrons, and are closed to in-person service between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Take-out, curbside and delivery will still be allowed during those hours, and Burgum encouraged North Dakotans to take advantage and support local businesses.

All banquet, ballroom and event venues are limited to 25 percent of their maximum occupancy, not to exceed new capacity limits that have been established with input from venues and local public health officials based on the size of the venue. Physical distancing and masks will be required for the safety of all venue personnel and patrons.

Playoff championship contests and performance events sponsored by the North Dakota High School Activities Association during the month of November may continue under NDHSAA requirements. All high school winter sports and other extracurricular K-12 school activities are suspended until Dec. 14. This also applies to all association, community and club sports for youth and adults. College and intercollegiate activities must follow guidance from the North Dakota University System and their respective national organizations.

Burgum said the four-week pause in activities will help keep schools open to in-person instruction – the optimal learning environment for most students – and ensure that students continue to follow the mitigation strategies of wearing a mask and physical distancing.

“I fully support and endorse the orders signed today by Gov. Burgum and the State Health Officer,” said Dr. Joshua Wynne, North Dakota’s chief health strategist and dean of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. “We as citizens of North Dakota need to act now to limit further spread of the virus and thus prevent our hospital capacity from being threatened. Let’s do these things now so that by Thanksgiving the pandemic situation in North Dakota will be headed in the right direction.”

Those who violate the mask and capacity requirements may be cited for an infraction. Burgum urged law enforcement and public health agencies to prioritize education in their enforcement, providing warnings and education about the risk of transmission, while reserving penalties for the most egregious violations that put public health at risk.

Industries not covered by the executive order should continue to follow the North Dakota Smart Restart guidelines.

“Despite North Dakota’s remarkable efforts at testing and case finding, these measures are no longer enough, and we are now in desperate need of implementing stronger measures in order to save lives and preserve our health care workforce and capacity,” said Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease specialist, professor of public health at North Dakota State University and physician advisor to the state’s COVID-19 response. “We have a growing body of good evidence that masking, especially when paired with other mitigation strategies, can substantially reduce the spread of the virus. I am very grateful that the Governor has taken the bold measure to implement an enforced mask mandate across the state, and am hopeful this will help to flatten the curve.”

Medical experts say small social gatherings with family and friends are also driving the current COVID-19 surge across the nation. Burgum urged North Dakotans to try to limit gatherings to their immediate household group as much as possible for the next four weeks and to wear a mask if gathering with people from outside the household.

“We believe in North Dakotans. We believe in the power of individual responsibility. And we need individual responsibility now more than ever to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Burgum said.

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