BISMARCK — The city of Bismarck will require face masks starting Nov 1. until Dec. 8 in an effort "to do something" to curb the spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota's capital city.

The Bismarck City Commission voted 3-2 Tuesday, Oct. 27, for an amended mask order that will last one month and have no penalties for noncompliance. The commission said it would consider extending the order at its Dec. 8 meeting.

The amendments came after more than two hours of discussion in which the majority of commissioners expressed dismay at a proposed penalty for businesses who did not comply with the mask mandate. The commissioners also wanted an exception for religious activities.

The goal is to get the positivity rate for Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, down to at least 8% from its current 12.7%.

The commissioners stated the benefits of wearing a mask are not definitive, and they trust Bismarck residents to do the right thing and take precautions against COVID-19 on their own. However, they also heard from many residents that it was time to do something.

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Commissioner Greg Zenker made amendments to the proposed policy that reduced the severity of the mandate, stating he could not support something that would penalize citizens.

"(The mandate) is probably going to be the weakest thing you've ever seen," Zenker said while making the amendments. "That's what I can support."

Zenker said he wanted to "test drive" the mask mandate for a month.

"If it doesn't work, then we've done it and no one respects anybody and we won't get this thing under control," he said. "Our health care will still be taxed and overused and not respected."

Not only did the Bismarck City Commission accept a mask mandate, but it will also implement on Nov. 1 multiple COVID-19 mitigation strategies including business capacity limits and restrictions on large gatherings, though there is no penalty or enforcement for those strategies.

The mask mandate states people in Bismarck are required to wear a mask in all indoor settings when exposed to people outside of their household and where a social distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained.

During a meeting that lasted almost six hours, the commissioners Tuesday heard multiple impassioned testimonials from Bismarck residents, local health officials, business owners and medical experts, among others. The majority of speakers questioned the enforceability of the mask order and said a mandate would force them to do something they did not want to do.

North Dakota's capital city received national attention Monday, Oct. 26, after one of the nation's leading health officials said mask-wearing among Bismarck residents was the worst she has seen in her 38-state tour of the country. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Monday there is evidence that mask-wearing, both statewide and at the local level, works in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Before the meeting, demonstrators gathered in front of the Bismarck City/County Building to protest the mandate. They held up signs saying mandates infringe on freedoms and the government should not force people to comply with a mandate.

Stephanie Stevens and Alan Jacobson of Bismarck stand in opposition of a citywide mask mandate in front of Bismarck's City/County Office Building on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Kyle Martin / Special to The Forum.
Stephanie Stevens and Alan Jacobson of Bismarck stand in opposition of a citywide mask mandate in front of Bismarck's City/County Office Building on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Kyle Martin / Special to The Forum.

The majority of citizens who spoke during a comment period that eclipsed two hours passionately voiced their opposition to government intervention in relation to COVID-19. Citizens said the mandate was unnecessary and implementing one would mean Bismarck would be giving in to fear.

Fargo, Minot, Valley City, Grand Forks, New Town and Devils Lake all implemented citywide mask mandates earlier this month as the communities saw cases continue to increase.

Burleigh and Morton counties together have had 127 COVID-19 deaths of which 77 were Burleigh County residents throughout the pandemic so far, and on Tuesday they reported a combined 14-day positivity rate of 12.5% for all tests.

As of Tuesday, CHI St. Alexius and Sanford Health in Bismarck reported a combined three available staffed ICU beds and eight staffed inpatient beds.

The two dissenting votes for the city's COVID-19 mitigation strategies were Bismarck Commissioner Mark Splonskowski and Mayor Steve Bakken.

Splonskowski said he would never support something that took away a person's freedom, which is exactly what he said the mask mandate was.

"I will not support any mandate forcing people to do something they don't want to do," he said. "This is something you're forcing people to strap onto their faces whenever they're in close proximity to people."

Bakken said he was against the mandate because it is unenforceable and he has faith in citizens to do the right thing.

"Do the right thing in the right situation with the right circumstances," Bakken said. "Help out everybody else to keep your favorite businesses open and keep your kids in school. ... Just do the right thing and help out the community."

Bakken has repeatedly said he supports mask-wearing, but he is not in favor of a citywide mask mandate, stating the mandate is only one strategy and a directive would actually entice people to not wear masks.

Among the many people to submit input to the Bismarck City Commission before Tuesday's meeting was North Dakota Field Medical Officer Joan Connell. She urged the commission to pass a mask mandate, especially because the cases in the Bismarck-Mandan region are skyrocketing.

Connell was said she was baffled at the reluctance to implement a mandate, especially because other North Dakota cities and communities across the country were doing so and seeing reduced COVID-19 cases.

“Is it your impression that our community is filled with lawless citizens who will buck a mandate in oppositional defiance? Or do you as commissioners feel that we have not seen enough hits to our economy, hospitalization overflow, and death to have to make a bold move that only you as elected officials can make?” Connell wrote.

Citizens stand in a hallway at the City/County Office Building in Bismarck to speak during public comment ahead of a city commission vote on a mask mandate on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Kyle Martin / Special to The Forum.
Citizens stand in a hallway at the City/County Office Building in Bismarck to speak during public comment ahead of a city commission vote on a mask mandate on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Kyle Martin / Special to The Forum.

Bismarck Commissioner Nancy Guy proposed the original mask mandate, which included fines for businesses who had repeated complaints submitted against them for noncompliance to the mandate. She said she was frustrated the Bismarck City Commission was even in this situation, as a statewide mandate should have been passed long ago.

"I am angry at the governor for not doing something because ... if we're going to do this, we should be doing it all over the state in a uniform manner," Guy said.

Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association, said Bismarck needed a mandate, especially for those in long-term care facilities.

"I'm not sure how much more facilities, residents, staff and families can take," Peterson said Monday. "We need our community more than ever to help us."

Peterson said even though many residents were in their 60s to 100s, they still wanted to live and they want to be reunited with their families.

"We are going to be just fine," Bismarck resident Jan Wangler said during public comment. "We have no right to implement a mandate."

Another Bismarck resident was not convinced masks worked and held up a rabbit's foot during the meeting, saying it was more beneficial than a mask.

"I can periodically rub this rabbit's foot a few times and receive the same protective benefits as (a) mask," he said.

Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch said she has heard many people talk about their personal freedoms, but she wondered about the freedoms of those who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

"The action of wearing a mask would help protect those individuals," Moch said. "These people in this community have those same rights as everybody else."

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