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North Dakota releases reopening protocols for large venues; Virus death toll climbs to 42

North Dakota releases reopening protocols for large venues; Virus death toll climbs to 42

State officials on Friday released protocols paving the way for large venues such as concert arenas and sports stadiums in North Dakota to reopen in phases amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The guidelines for "large gatherings" are recommendations only, unlike previously released industry standards for businesses such as restaurants and hair salons that could face fines for noncompliance, according to Gov. Doug Burgum. Those businesses were restricted by the state or ordered to shut down, while the large venues were not, though facilities such as the Bismarck Event Center and the Fargodome closed voluntarily.

Burgum expressed confidence that large venues will follow the recommendations because customers will demand a safe environment.

"Market forces again I think will help guide -- whether you're a very small bar or restaurant, or whether you're the largest venue in the state -- will help guide them in terms of making sure that their customers and potential customers and visitors or concertgoers or people that may be going to an outdoor baseball game, that they're also feeling safe and comfortable," the governor said.

North Dakota is in the middle level of a five-level risk model, meaning "we have to still be alert, we have to be at heightened risk for exposure, but understanding that transmission is generally controlled," Burgum said.

Guidelines for the middle “moderate risk” level, crafted with private sector input, are that arenas and stadiums operate at 50% of their certificate of occupancy, with no more than 250 people, the governor said. Food service in the facilities must comply with the mandatory protocols for eating and drinking establishments. Officials also suggest measures such as touchless doors and bathroom faucets aimed at minimizing the risk of further spreading the coronavirus disease COVID-19.

"Those things will help avoid those areas where there might be transmissible moments among large groups, because we do know from an epidemiology standpoint, large groups represent real risk," Burgum said.

The state is working toward the “lower risk” level, which recommends 75% occupancy and no more than 500 people, and the “new normal” level, where "most activity can resume, festivals and sporting events where proper safety and guidelines" are in place, Burgum said.

Protocols for smaller large-gathering venues such as banquet halls and ballrooms -- facilities used for events such as weddings -- were still being finalized and were to be posted later Friday on the Department of Health website, at https://www.health.nd.gov/.

The large-gathering guidelines don't address sports such as softball or baseball, which are governed by various sanctioning bodies, according to Burgum.

New cases

Two new COVID-19 deaths have raised the statewide total to 42, and cases of the coronavirus disease in the state's most populous county have surpassed 1,000, the state Department of Health reported Friday.

The latest victims are a man in his 40s from Grand Forks County and a man in his 90s from Cass County, home to Fargo, where deaths now number 32 and total cases have risen to a state-high 1,032. Grand Forks County is second, with 307 cases and three deaths.

Officials categorize statewide deaths this way: 35 cases in which COVID-19 is listed as the cause of death, four deaths in which the disease was not the primary cause, and three cases in which an official death record has not yet been filed. That can take up to 14 days under state law.

Health officials on Friday reported 52 new cases statewide, with 43 of them in Cass County and three in Grand Forks County. There are two new cases apiece in Burleigh and Morton counties, raising their totals to 109 and 39, respectively. The other two new cases are in Rolette and Stutsman counties.

A total of 130 people statewide have been hospitalized due to COVID-19, up one from the previous day; 35 remained so on Thursday, down three. Burgum has stressed that coronavirus hospitalizations represent only a small fraction of the state's hospital capacity.

There were 64 new recoveries reported Friday, raising that total to 1,071 and lowering active cases by 17, to 648.

State and private labs have tested 51,715 people for COVID-19, with 49,954 being negative. The number of total tests, which includes people who have been tested more than once, is at 60,492. Health officials on Thursday handled 1,404 tests of new individuals and 2,310 total tests.

Most people who get COVID-19 recover, experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. Others, especially the elderly and people with existing health problems, can experience more severe illness, including pneumonia.

More information on coronavirus and COVID-19 can be found at: www.health.nd.gov/coronavirus.

Graduation ceremony

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, actor Josh Duhamel and Nashville recording artists Tigirlily are scheduled to participate in a May 30 statewide celebration of North Dakota’s high school Class of 2020, Burgum and State School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler announced.

Wentz, a native of Bismarck and graduate of North Dakota State University, will give the commencement address during the hourlong ceremony that will begin at 2 p.m. Central time on Saturday, May 30. Duhamel, a Minot native, and Tigirlily -- Hazen sisters Kendra and Krista Slaubaugh -- will deliver congratulatory messages. Tigirlily will sing to close the event.

Burgum also will speak, and five students will participate including Kourtney Bitz, a Napoleon senior who will give the student address. 

The virtual ceremony will be broadcast on ABC statewide and livestreamed on Forum Communication newspaper websites. It will recognize graduates from 181 high schools.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many events that are dear to our seniors, including graduation ceremonies, prom, and athletic events. They have not been able to be with their classmates during their last days of high school,” Burgum and Baesler said in a joint statement. “We hope that this celebration will provide some memories for our seniors, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.”

Unemployment

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is now accepting certifications from qualified applicants.

The program provides a 13-week extension of benefits to unemployment insurance claimants who have exhausted a regular current claim.

Beginning Thursday, letters will be sent to applicants who have submitted claims for the aid since April 4, when Job Service North Dakota began accepting PEUC applications. People also can find the letter by logging into the UI ICE section on the Job Service website at https://www.jobsnd.com/ and checking the "correspondence" tab.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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