The Bismarck City Commission took a good step late Tuesday by adopting a mask requirement and placing limits on gatherings and business occupancy.
It was a small step but a necessary one, as Burleigh County is among the state leaders in active coronavirus cases and hospitals report limited capacity and strained resources. Statewide, a record 178 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Wednesday.
Comments from the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator this week that mask use in Bismarck is the worst she’s seen ought to embarrass all of us.
Dr. Deborah Birx, who has traveled to 40 states since June, said she observed the least use of masks in Bismarck grocery stores, restaurants and hotels compared with other communities she’s visited. Birx urges the public to wear face masks and practice social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
"There is not only an evidence that masks work, there's an evidence that masks utilized as a public health mitigation effort works," Birx said.
The pandemic mitigation strategy approved 3-2 by Bismarck commissioners does not carry a penalty for noncompliance.
Commissioner Nancy Guy advocated for a penalty in the city’s policy, but other commissioners said they could not support a strategy that includes fines. Even if a penalty were included, it would have been difficult to enforce.
A mask requirement without a penalty is still a clear signal to the public that actions need to change. Now it’s up to all of us to follow the requirements, and business and community leaders can play a big role by setting a good example.
The Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC supported a local mask mandate, in part because it creates a level playing field for businesses. Many small businesses may have hesitated to require masks out of concern they might offend customers. Now businesses can require them and attribute the policy to a city requirement.
The commission will revisit the strategy again at its Dec. 8 meeting. Commissioners can evaluate whether it’s working and whether a penalty is warranted. Bismarck also can learn from the experiences of other North Dakota cities that have adopted similar policies.
Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health Director Renae Moch and other medical professionals who advocated for a mask requirement should be commended. Their comments are not always popular, but they are working to protect public health. Their expertise was needed during Tuesday night’s lengthy discussion to balance out some of the hysteria and unfounded claims, such as the comment that a lucky rabbit’s foot would be as effective as a mask.
Commissioner Mark Splonskowki’s attempt to minimize the pandemic by focusing on the death rate is offensive to families of the 488 North Dakotans who have died with COVID-19.
Splonskowki defends the rights of individuals to not wear masks, but he ignores the rights of people with underlying health conditions.
Mayor Steve Bakken is right that a statewide mandate would be more effective than city-by-city requirements. But it’s clear a statewide policy is not going to happen. And doing nothing does not seem to be working.
The Tribune urges Burleigh County, Mandan and Morton County leaders to adopt similar policies.
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