BISMARCK — More than 100 demonstrators gathered outside the North Dakota Capitol on Monday, April 5, cheering their support for a bill under consideration in the Legislature that would ban mask-wearing mandates.

House Bill 1323 would prohibit the state or any local governments in North Dakota from mandating an individual to wear a face mask, face shield or other face covering.

Rally-goers on Monday, many holding signs expressing their support of the bill and sentiments against mask-wearing, heard from multiple speakers who are proponents of the mandate ban.

"We're trying to bring perspective on it, get people to be rational," said Jared Hendrix, one of the rally organizers. "Anyone can still take whatever precautions they feel they need to take if they're at risk — that's fine — but we think the people should have the freedom to decide."

The House passed the bill in February by a vote of 50-44 after the House Political Subdivisions Committee gave it a "do not pass" recommendation. Last week, the Senate Political Subdivisions Committee also gave it a "do not pass" recommendation.

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Republican Rep. Jeff Hoverson, primary sponsor of a bill to ban mask mandates, spoke to demonstrators on Monday, April 5, 2021, outside the North Dakota Capitol. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Republican Rep. Jeff Hoverson, primary sponsor of a bill to ban mask mandates, spoke to demonstrators on Monday, April 5, 2021, outside the North Dakota Capitol. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Rep. Jeff Hoverson, the bill's main sponsor, walked the crowd Monday through the bill's progress, saying its passage looks "much more grim in the Senate." He encouraged those in attendance to call their state senators and urge them to pass the bill without any amendments.

Hoverson, a Minot Republican, said there are multiple amendments senators are considering adding to the bill, including one that would rework the bill to only ban mandates at the state level. This means cities or counties could still issue mask mandates, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks at gatherings and in public settings as a way to prevent people from getting and spreading the coronavirus.

Mask-wearing has been a political flashpoint during the pandemic. Gov. Doug Burgum's administration installed a statewide mask mandate in mid-November. In subsequent months, COVID-19 cases dropped significantly and the mandate was lifted Jan. 18.

Several local jurisdictions in North Dakota, such as the city of Fargo, have issued their own mask mandates. Fargo's mandate was allowed to expire March 22.

On Monday, Cass County, which includes Fargo, saw 44 new COVID-19 cases and has nearly half of the state's active cases, which have doubled since late February.

Some who attended Monday's rally, such as Ryan Widicker, believe that wearing masks actually does more harm than good.

"It's harder for me to breathe," Widicker said, adding that he has to wear a mask during the day at his job. "I get done with the day and I'm breathing a lot heavier, and so I just don't think it's healthy."

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill later this week, Hendrix told the crowd.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.