BISMARCK — The North Dakota Senate has endorsed a bill that would bar state officials from issuing mask mandates in the future, but last-second amendments watered down the proposal.
The upper chamber voted 30-17 on Wednesday, April 7, to send House Bill 1323 back to the House of Representatives, which narrowly passed a more far-reaching version of the legislation in February. If the House concurs with the amendments, the bill will go to Gov. Doug Burgum's desk. A spokesman for Burgum declined to comment on the proposal.
The changes to the bill mean it would only prohibit state officials, including the governor and state health officer, from creating a mask requirement, but cities, counties, school boards and businesses would still be allowed to mandate mask use. Beulah Republican Sen. Jessica Bell proposed the amendments as "a compromise," saying lawmakers could protect both personal freedom and safety by ripping the mandating authority away from the state but permitting localities to take the step if necessary.
The bill has drawn support from a vocal group of residents who oppose mask requirements, and applause rained down from the Senate gallery after Wednesday's vote. Protesters took to the Capitol steps earlier this week to drum up support for the legislation, which was seen as a long shot to get through upper chamber.
Elected officials in a few other states, including Arizona and Idaho, have considered banning mask mandates in some form, but North Dakota lawmakers could be the first to pass a sweeping prohibition on state-ordered mask requirements.
The Legislature's pushback on compulsory mask-wearing comes several months after Burgum's administration imposed a statewide face covering mandate amid the nation's most severe COVID-19 outbreak. Burgum had previously expressed skepticism of mask requirements but changed his tune as the virus strained the state's hospital capacity. A handful of cities and counties, including Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck, independently required mask use in public prior to the state mandate, which expired in January.
The state's COVID-19 case count plummeted after the local and state mandates were issued, but health experts say a combination of factors, like restrictions on businesses and greater adherence to social distancing, likely played into the drop in infections.
Mandan Republican Sen. Doug Larsen and other bill proponents noted that North Dakota and its southern neighbor had similar infection numbers even though the Mount Rushmore State never mandated masks. Sen. Judy Lee, R-Fargo, pointed out that South Dakota tested far fewer residents for COVID-19 than North Dakota, which throws off the comparison.
Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, supported the bill, noting that the state's mask mandate was lightly enforced and only served to sow division. Meyer added that recommending mask-wearing and relying on residents' individual responsibility is more appropriate than requiring the practice.
Williston Republican Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, a longtime dentist, said the bill could set the table for a dangerous situation if a more severe pandemic rolls through North Dakota and state officials' hands are tied by an inability to require masks. Bekkedahl, who missed the first week of the legislative session with a case of COVID-19, said wearing masks during the last year was a matter of caring for others who may not have survived the illness like he did.