FARGO - No shirt.

No shoes.

No mask.

No service.

More stores and restaurants in the Fargo-Moorhead area are taking a tougher stance on masking up as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, hoping to protect customers and employees from adding to the grim statistics of infections and deaths.

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At Blackbird Woodfire Grill on Broadway in the heart of Fargo's downtown, even the blackbird on a back wall sign sports a mask.

Owner Casey Absey announced on Facebook that Monday, Oct. 12, would be the first day he’d require customers to mask up.

“Well! The time has come, Starting tomorrow, Monday October 12th Blackbird will be requiring a mask to enter and move around in the restaurant. Please respect my decision, it’s not political and don’t want to debate it in the front door,” the Facebook post said. “Put on a mask, eat some great pizza and go home and be safe.”

Health officials say wearing a mask is important because the COVID-19 virus is thought to be mostly spread by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough or sneeze, and that wearing a mask helps prevent these droplets from spreading.

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On Monday, Absey said he wished he had required masks sooner. No one in North Dakota’s city or state governments, or at the federal level, will lead by enacting a mask mandate, he said.

“I feel like we should have done it from the get go,” Absey said. “I think we all need to get together on it. I was wishing that the city, state or federal government would have mandated it, so I don’t have to be called a libtard.”

The decision was tough, and he’s hoping downtown businesses support each other on this issue.

“None of us are in a position to turn away business,” he said. “If nobody is going to back us, we need to be a unit. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

DCR Brewing Co on 1st Avenue North has also instituted a mask mandate.

Owner Sam Corr started requiring masks in his taproom on Wednesday. His inspiration came from Absey’s announcement.

“It’s not up for debate and we aren’t going to argue with you at the door about it. So mask up, stop out for some great beer, and stay safe,” Corr announced with his own Facebook post.

Corr, who had contracted COVID in May, has planned to require masks for awhile, then COVID cases started to spike in North Dakota.

He expects other businesses will soon require masks to avoid mandated business shutdowns in coming months.

“I think a lot of the people that don’t want to wear masks, they’re going to find out very quickly, they’ll have nowhere else to go.” Corr said.

Any risk while dining out is mitigated when everyone masks up, he said.

“Then we’re all protected … to a degree,” Corr said.

Casey Absey, owner of Blackbird Woodfire Grill in downtown Broadway, recently instituted a mask requirement for customers to enter or move around the restaurant. On Monday, Oct. 12, Absey said he wishes that leaders at the city, state or federal level would have put a mask requirement in place for everyone's safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
Casey Absey, owner of Blackbird Woodfire Grill in downtown Broadway, recently instituted a mask requirement for customers to enter or move around the restaurant. On Monday, Oct. 12, Absey said he wishes that leaders at the city, state or federal level would have put a mask requirement in place for everyone's safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

‘It’s the right thing to do’

Tim Griffin, the owner of Young Blood Coffee Co., also took to Facebook to defend his shop's mask requirement.

“To the 2 college guys I called out in our cafe today; I’m sure it’s the first time someone has taken offense to you using the term ‘libtard’ (This was mentioned while referring to our mask policy),” his Sunday Facebook post said.

“My response most likely startled you. You’ve probably been encouraged to talk like this. After all, we are in a state that likes to politicize basic CDC health practices. We don’t push politics, just safe, scientific, health practices.

“Our mask policy is strict. It’s not easy to stand up and do the right thing even when it polarizes, but it’s the right thing to do for our staff, and the community we care about.

“Hospital beds in Fargo are full and we believe in doing our part to keep people out of those needed beds.

“Our staff works hard and it’s not easy to show up and wear a mask all day serving people.

“I have zero tolerance for any negative talk about our policies or our staff. I will stand up for them without compromise every time,” Griffin wrote.

COVID numbers growing

COVID infection rates are ramping in the region, even as colder weather forces people indoors. Flu season is also getting underway.

On Thursday, the North Dakota Department of Health reported five deaths from COVID-19. Since March, 370 people have died due to COVID-19 in North Dakota and deaths have continued to mount. There were 4,947 North Dakotans known to be infected with the virus. Cass County had 93 new infections.

The entire region is experiencing a surge in cases, with South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana and Minnesota identified by the New York Times as states where infections are "high and staying high."

In Minnesota, there were 19 new deaths reported Thursday with the overall death toll climbing to 2,199, the Department of Health reported.

Minnesota added 1,169 new cases Thursday bringing the state’s total to more than 117,000 known cases. Thirty-five of those new cases were reported in Clay County.

Nationally, the death toll neared 217,000, the Times reported Thursday.

A note written on a window by the entrance to Young Blood Coffee in downtown Fargo on Monday, Oct 12, urges patrons to be polite about the coffee shop's requirement for wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
A note written on a window by the entrance to Young Blood Coffee in downtown Fargo on Monday, Oct 12, urges patrons to be polite about the coffee shop's requirement for wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

Differing approaches

North Dakota is one of about 15 states that hasn't instituted a mask mandate.

Gov. Doug Burgum has repeatedly rejected the measure, saying residents should be trusted to act responsibly and wear face coverings voluntarily. The Republican governor has also said the state is relying on local leaders to make decisions.

In his news conference Wednesday, Burgum suggested local business owners should encourage or mandate the use of masks by customers to lower the risk of virus transmission, perhaps even offering discounts to patrons who wear masks.

Earlier in the week, the mayors of Fargo, West Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot issued a letter urging the public to take action to slow the “significant wave” of COVID cases. The letter urges people in capital letters to "WEAR A MASK" when social distancing can't be maintained.

Meanwhile, Forum News Service reported that 65 North Dakota pediatricians signed an open letter sent to Burgum, asking him to institute a mask mandate or risk "a public health disaster this winter.”

The Fargo City Commission recently rejected two mask mandate proposals, one with a civil penalty and another without. Mayor Tim Mahoney cast the deciding vote against a mandate saying the issue would tear the city apart. He said mask education was the way to go.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, on the other hand, has been more aggressive in his use of emergency powers during the pandemic. People in Minnesota must wear a face covering in all indoor businesses and public indoor spaces, unless alone. Additionally, workers are required to wear a face covering when working outdoors where social distancing cannot be maintained.

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Mask movement

Many national retailers have instituted mask mandates for workers and customers, including Target, Costco, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Walgreens, Home Depot, CVS, Lowe’s, Best Buy, ALDI’s, Macy’s, Kohls and a host of others.

In May, when North Dakota businesses began reopening after pandemic shutdowns, several small businesses on downtown Fargo’s 400 Block banded together to institute their own mask mandates.

Sticking with the mandates has been trying at times.

Recently, Zandbroz Variety took to Facebook to reiterate its stance.

“We require masks. No exceptions,” Monday’s Facebook post said. “ND should have a mask mandate, but it doesn't. That means we're forced to put protocol in place that considers the facts, science, common-sense and basic human decency. We are unwavering in our confidence that a mask requirement is the right thing.

“Businesses are not the bad guy for doing what's in the best interest of their staff, customers and community. The health, well-being, and vitality of the community will always be our number one priority.

“Thank you to the 98% of you who are kind, appreciative and supportive. For anyone else - please stop bullying us, threatening us, and suggesting we're infringing on your rights. It is our right to set in place any regulations we see fit to protect our ability to stay healthy and able to continue to serve this community.

“This isn't political. We will not engage with arguments or try to reason with those who push back - those individuals will simply be asked to leave," the post said.

Zandbroz owner Greg Danz said the store has been adamant about masking up since Day 1, including giving away free masks.

“I think most people appreciate we’re doing it,” Danz said. “Once a week, we get someone who doesn’t want to wear one and we ask them politely to leave. We’ve had a couple who told us they were freedom fighters and didn’t want to wear mask."

Manager Josie Danz is glad that the shops on the 400 Block support each other on maintaining mask requirements.

Sometimes pushback on the mask requirement wears a bit, but the response has been “overwhelmingly accepting, appreciative and understanding,” Josie Danz said.

“At the end of the day, our health, our customers’ health, and the health of the community” outweigh the minor inconvenience of masks while shopping, she said.

Closings can be costly

Back at Blackbird Woodfire, Absey points to other restaurants downtown that have had to close for testing or due to worries about potential virus outbreaks.

Black Coffee & Waffle Bar on Sunday announced a COVID closure due to an employee testing positive for the virus. The shop said it would reopen once exposed employees were tested and it was deemed safe.

On Tuesday, Duffy’s Tavern announced on Facebook that “With the uptick of positive tests and other illness in the area Duffys will be closed until Sun. Oct. 18th for the health of the customers and staff. Also to get a deep cleaning in.”

The Hotel Donaldson’s bar and restaurant opened at the end of June and closed again in early August, an employee said Wednesday. The decision to reopen has been put off, perhaps until the first quarter of the coming year.

Absey said he doesn’t want himself or his employees to become ill. Nor does he want to lose money due to a closure.

“It’s not a political thing. It’s something we all have to do together to get through it,” Absey said.

He asks that people abide by business's mask rules.

“No shirt, no service. It’s the same thing,” Absey said.