FARGO — Andy Doll approached the podium during a recent Fargo School Board meeting at South High, and took a deep breath before respectfully thanking the board for their work.
Doll then told the nine-member panel and others that wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t doing anyone any good.
“There is a large constituent of parents out here who do not believe in wearing masks whatsoever,” Doll said during the Aug. 25 meeting.
“Masks are like a chain-link fence stopping a mosquito,” Doll, a West Fargo resident, said in a later interview. “And the psychological impact of face coverings is tremendous.”
From individuals like Doll speaking up at school board meetings, to citizens expressing opposition to masks at city meetings in Fargo and Bismarck, to eight students protesting a mask-wearing mandate in Williston schools, so-called anti-maskers are beginning to make their voices heard here in North Dakota.
North Dakota, which surpassed 3,000 active cases over the weekend, leads the country in new COVID-19 cases per capita over the last week, according to the New York Times.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged Americans to wear masks when around others, especially when a 6-foot social distance cannot be maintained. According to the CDC, masks "are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus."
Gov. Doug Burgum has strongly encouraged North Dakotans to wear masks, but he has stopped short of issuing a statewide mask-wearing mandate. He said having people take personal responsibility for wearing masks is a better approach.
Some North Dakotans, however, reject masks as part of the solution.
'I am not selfish'
Much of the disdain over masks comes down to protecting personal freedoms.
A group known as the North Dakota Freedom Fighters recently changed its name to North Dakota Freedom Defenders online. With about 1,900 members, the group’s goal is to discuss and carry out actions they can take as citizens to defend their freedoms, according to the group's Facebook page.
Julie Neidlinger, a freelance artist and author, is listed as an administrator of North Dakota Freedom Defenders. In an email response to questions, Neidlinger said six months of mask wearing has done little to slow the spread of the virus.
“They see six months of destructive behavior towards the public that has done little to slow a respiratory virus, but destroyed lives and businesses, and see this as the line in the sand on which they’ll push back on,” Neidlinger said.
“I am not selfish. I do not have bad hygiene, I wash my hands, I’m respecting social distancing as best I can right now, I don’t disparage anyone wearing a mask if they want,” Neidlinger said. “I'm not going to walk lock-step with whatever the government tells me to and then act like I'm the genius in the room and treat others as if they are stupid and thoughtless murderers.”
Some question why everyday citizens do not have more input when decisions are made about preventing the spread of the illness.
Maxine Herr, a public information officer for Morton County and a member of the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force, said it is frustrating how many citizens do not have a say in what procedures should be taken during the pandemic.
“Why are we not listening to the people we serve?” Herr asked, saying that the majority of Morton County residents are not in favor of wearing masks.
“We only want to listen to one side of the argument,” Herr said. “For every study that says masks work, there’s a study that says they don’t.”
Alexis Wangler is president of Health Freedom North Dakota, a nonprofit group that encourages people to make informed decisions about their own health without government intervention.
When it comes to wearing masks, Wangler said her group favors letting people decide whether they should or should not.
Wangler said she personally does not wear masks because she has a medical condition. “It would hinder my health to wear a mask,” she said.
'I want you to be free'
Morton County Commissioners voted down a mask mandate this month, and the Fargo City Commission voted Monday to draft language for a possible citywide mask mandate, just in case COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
“I don’t think there’s any topic that I’ve brought up that has brought as much feedback as the pandemic has created,” said Fargo City Commissioner John Strand, who proposed the mask mandate.
One of the strongest arguments against mask mandates he's seen is that police don’t have time to enforce them, but with his proposal, there would be no penalties. A similar mandate worked in New York, he said.
“They successfully flattened their curve,” Strand said.
A conservative with libertarian leanings, Fargo resident Leon Francis doesn’t wear a mask unless he has to.
“To mandate something that there is no consensus for, I think that is not in any way something that a free country should be involved in,” Francis said.
Doll, who spoke at the Aug. 25 Fargo School Board meeting, said he’s living life as normal. He refuses to wear a mask. He said he’s recently been kicked out of seven or eight local establishments for not wearing a mask. He said he’s taking zinc every day and has not been sick since last winter, which is unusual for him.
Anti-maskers like Doll say that government overreach, the negative psychological impact of masks and the inefficiency of masks are why they’re standing up now.
“Half of the people I talk to say if you want to wear a mask, no problem, and half of us want to educate you because we don’t want America to become Communist China. I want you to be free. I want us to be the United States of America,” Doll said.
Religious freedom also plays a role in some residents' decisions not to wear masks.
Kendi Chase, a Bismarck citizen who said she does not wear a mask, spoke at a recent Bismarck City Commission meeting about how she believes God will help her through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know that (God) is in charge of me,” Chase said at the meeting. “I trust him and I trust the body that he has given to me and the immune system that he has given to me to be able to fight against viruses and diseases.”
At a Grand Forks City Council meeting on Sept. 8, Jean Gullicks said she frequently works with children and their mental health, and she talked about the psychological effects the pandemic has had on children.
“The impact of quarantine and the impact of masks has caused extreme anxiety and increase in suicidal ideation and suicides in many age groups,” said Gullicks, who's listed as a certified family nurse practitioner and development specialist in North Dakota and Minnesota with Northland Christian Counseling Center in Grand Forks.
North Dakota is one of 16 states that do not require face coverings in public, and for that, Neidlinger said, she is glad.
“I know some people feel safe when there is restriction, but I don't understand that. I prefer as much freedom to decide and live as possible, even if it is 'less safe,'" Neidlinger said.
Readers can reach Forum reporters Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org and C.S. Hagen at email@example.com.