Burgum's restart of North Dakota's economy is a calculated gamble
FARGO — Brent Tehven and his staff at the Herd & Horns Sports Bar and Grill have been removing tables and chairs from the tavern in preparation for reopening as North Dakota eases its way into a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Doug Burgum is lifting an executive order imposed six weeks ago closing “high contact” businesses including bars, restaurants, barbershops, hairstyling salons and tattoo parlors, all of which can reopen on Friday, May 1.
“I’m not expecting things to be crazy,” co-owner Tehven said, noting nearby North Dakota State University is closed. Still, he added, “We’re optimistic that people are going to be anxious to get out.”
Removing chairs and tables is necessary to comply with a requirement that bars and restaurants reopen at no more than 50% of capacity. Businesses that the governor ordered closed also must comply with guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the North Dakota Department of Health.
“We’re going to stick our toe in the water,” Tehven said. He's asking his staff to wear masks, at least initially, even though that’s not required.
“We want our customers to feel safe here,” he said.
Burgum’s plan for reopening businesses he’d ordered closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus is based on a calculated risk.
The governor is betting that North Dakota has the capacity — in testing, contact tracing, supplies of protective wear for health professionals and hospital beds — to allow the “high contact” businesses, which carry a greater risk of transmitting the virus, to reopen with restrictions.
Burgum’s decision to allow reopening comes even though North Dakota doesn’t meet two key conditions the Trump administration recommends for states to reopen their economies: two straight weeks of reductions in new case numbers and hospitalizations.
In announcing his plans, however, Burgum stressed that North Dakota has sustained a stable rate of new case numbers despite a significant increase in testing.
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The state is poised to substantially increase its testing capacity — now capable of testing more than 1,900 per day, with plans to increase to 4,000 daily in May and 6,000 in June — and its ability to trace and isolate close contacts of those who have been infected, he said.
Also, the governor noted, North Dakota so far has used about 1% of its hospital bed capacity, and has not come close to having to use surge capacity. Hospitals have a two months’ supply of protective wear — even if a patient surge comes, he said.
Per capita, North Dakota’s testing volume ranks sixth in the nation, and its per-capita contact tracing ability ranks first in the nation, with a COVID-19 fatality rate that was the sixth lowest in the nation, Burgum said.
“We’re well positioned for a smart restart,” based on a set of conditions officials have set , he said.
Burgum acknowledges there are risks in easing the restrictions. But he is betting the risks are manageable and that any outbreaks will be identified by increased testing and contained by targeted measures, rather than broad shutdowns.
“We’ve had a light touch in North Dakota in terms of what government mandates have been,” said Burgum, who refrained from issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, as Minnesota and many other states did.
Arik Spencer, president of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said an effective reopening plan can’t take shortcuts with health and safety.
“It’s important that we open, but it’s also important that we do this right,” which means protecting the public and instilling confidence. “That’s going to be one of the big challenges with this.”
Customers won’t show up in large numbers until they feel safe, Spencer said. But it’s vital to reopen the economy. Many industries, including hospitality, have taken a huge hit during the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
"We can’t shut the economy down for the next year,” Spencer said.
Burgum and Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer, whose office worked with trade groups as well as health officials to craft the reopening plan , said it will be important for people to continue to exercise precautions, including physical distancing and avoiding large groups.
“We are hopeful that we behave well and perform well,” Kommer said. The reopening starting Friday is just the first phase in steps the state will take to reopen the economy. Progress will enable further easing, she said.
“Businesses and consumers and employees alike have a shared interest in keeping one another safe,” Kommer said.
State officials are developing plans to protect the most vulnerable, including the elderly, those whose immune systems are compromised, and those with diabetes, heart or lung disease — groups that represent 20% of the population.
Most of the enforcement will be handled locally, and local as well as tribal governments have the authority to impose stricter requirements, Kommer said.
“We support a slow restart and trust our people to make healthy decisions and use good judgment,” said Desi Fleming, director of Fargo Cass Public Health. “There is no handbook on the best manner in which to respond with this specific pandemic.”
A spokeswoman for the North Dakota Nurses Association said nurses generally believe the state’s health providers are well equipped to handle the pandemic, in terms of staffing, training and beds, including surge capacity, if needed.
In checking with members, “They indicated that they feel it's OK to open back up, and just pray that people use common sense,” said Sherri Miller, executive director of the nurses association.
Although some expressed concerns, “Overall, the nurses I have talked to realize that it is a delicate balance of staying safe and healthy, caring for their patients, but also supporting the state's economic needs,” she said.
The transition to a normal economy will take time, Kommer said. There are examples of public backlash if officials move too quickly, she said, citing a resurgence of coronavirus infections and deaths in Germany after lockdowns were lifted.
For his part, Tehven said he is cautiously optimistic about North Dakota’s restart.
“In my opinion, 50% is better than nothing,” but bars and restaurants won’t be able to survive indefinitely at such a low volume, he said. Public acceptance — and adherence — to safety measures will be critical.
“I think the customers are going to drive it,” Tehven said.
Conditions for North Dakota’s restart
Robust, widespread rapid testing capability
Robust contact tracing and infrastructure
Targeted effective quarantine and isolation
Protections for the state's most vulnerable
Sufficient health care capacity, hospital/ICU beds
Adequate personal protective equipment
New standard operating procedures for reopening
Plans for dealing with a resurgence or additional waves of COVID-19
Source: North Dakota Office of the Governor, Health Department, Commerce Department