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Morton County Commission unanimously votes down mask mandate

Morton County Commission unanimously votes down mask mandate

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Custer Health Administrator Erin Ourada addresses the Morton County Commission on Thursday night. She spoke in favor of a mask mandate, which the commission rejected.

The Morton County Commission voted unanimously against creating a public mask mandate Thursday, after nearly a dozen people spoke out against the idea.

There was little discussion among the five commissioners about a potential mandate itself, and the commissioners who did comment on the issue did not support a mandate.

"Liberty and freedom are the foundation of our nation, and liberty and freedom, I believe, in this context, means choice," Commission Chairman Cody Schulz said, adding that he believes the government should instead persuade people to wear a mask.

"I'm a mask wearing advocate but a mask mandate opponent," Schulz said.

The Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force last Friday requested that local governments enact mask mandates and make guidelines for businesses requirements. The task force is working to address a spike in coronavirus cases in the region in the past couple of months.

Commissioner Andy Zachmeier moved to deny a mandate on several points, including no proven state of emergency, no apparent public support for a mandate, no plan for enforcement and the belief that a mask mandate should come from the governor. Gov. Doug Burgum has rejected the idea of issuing a statewide mask mandate, instead urging personal responsibility.

Twelve people spoke Thursday night during the opportunity for public comment, and all but one opposed the mandate.

Mandan resident Andra Marquardt told the commission that individual people are best suited to protect their own health and safety and that of their families, businesses and employees. She also mentioned the strain that months of following safety guidelines has caused.

"We are exhausted of the sacrifices we've had to make over the last six months, and we can't take any more," Marquardt said.

Local business owner Jan Wangler said her business has struggled to retain clients during the pandemic and that small businesses don't need a mask mandate.

"Please don't hurt the business community any more than you already have," she said. "Where there is risk, there must be choice."

Custer Health Administrator Erin Ourada presented recent COVID-19 data for the region to the commission. Since schools started in Morton County, the COVID-19 cases she has seen have come from community transmission and not from the schools, she said.

"All of the prevention methods in the world within the school setting won't be enough to stop an inevitable outbreak if we can't control community spread," Ourada said. "We need to do better in order to keep our children in school."

Ourada emphasized going back to basics with the "three Ws" of wearing a mask, watching your distance and washing your hands.

Schulz, who is a member of the Burleigh-Morton COVID-19 Task Force, said last Friday that he believed a mask mandate would have to be unanimous among Burleigh and Morton counties and the cities of Bismarck, Mandan and Lincoln.

The Bismarck City Commission on Tuesday did not move to mandate masks. Mayor Steve Bakken encouraged residents to take personal responsibility for mask wearing.

"Our citizens can make good choices for themselves without a mandate," he said.

Bakken also said he wanted to let an information campaign to encourage voluntary mask wearing run its course. The task force has hired Agency MABU to conduct the campaign.

The Burleigh County Commission meets Wednesday. Chairman Jerry Woodcox confirmed a mask mandate will be discussed.

As of Thursday, the Mandan City Commission had no plans to discuss a mandate at its meeting next week, Mayor Tim Helbling said, though he added that could change after Friday's task force meeting.

"I don't feel there's enough information on masks to bring the discussion to the commission," Helbling said. "We need more study and more information."

Helbling also said it's a "tough situation" when a government enacts a mandate and he wants people to make their own decisions.

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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