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Election Ends, But ND's Debate on COVID Approach Continues

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North Dakota officials say hospitals across the state are dealing with critical worker shortages as they try to respond to the latest COVID-19 surge. (Adobe Stock)
North Dakota officials say hospitals across the state are dealing with critical worker shortages as they try to respond to the latest COVID-19 surge. (Adobe Stock)
November 11, 2020

BISMARCK, N.D. -- COVID-19 is taking a heavy toll on North Dakota. With the election out of the way, some hoped that politics might be taken out of debating the state's response, but the disagreements continue.

Newly re-elected Gov. Doug Burgum announced this week that hospitals are at full capacity because of the pandemic. He's been outspoken about encouraging people to wear masks to help stop community spread, but has refused to issue a statewide mandate.

Landis Larson, president of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, said a mandate would not only protect front-line workers from infection but also from having to enforce orders issued by their employer or municipality.

"You know, a lot of cities have made mask mandates with no penalty," he said. "Well, the people who end up enforcing it, or trying to, are those front-line people."

Larson said his biggest concern is a lack of standards in OSHA enforcement when it comes to infectious diseases. He said that was addressed in the HEROES Act relief package, which cleared the U.S. House but wasn't taken up by the Senate.

Meanwhile, Burgum, a Republican, said during a news conference this week he thinks there isn't enough data to show statewide mask rules are effective, while noting that local ordinances could have a greater impact.

Also during the news conference, Burgum announced that because hospitals are overwhelmed, staff members who might have the coronavirus but are asymptomatic can keep working in COVID-19 units. That move was made following a request from hospital administrators.

Jason Boynton, a math professor and activist with North Dakota United, said he feels Burgum has been in a tough position, having to govern people who take the virus seriously as well as those who think the crisis is overblown. With the election cycle out of the way, he said, he hopes the governor might feel less restraint to make bold decisions.

"I hope that he can try," Boynton said, "and I hope that he can institute a mandate that's got some teeth to it."

Boynton said he feels having a statewide mandate instead of a patchwork of local ordinances would create less confusion and might get more people to comply.

The governor's office has seen a handful of top health officials resign during the crisis, drawing more public scrutiny of the state's response.

Disclosure: North Dakota AFL-CIO contributes to our fund for reporting on Livable Wages/Working Families. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mike Moen, Public News Service - ND