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Despite rise in COVID-19 cases, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney gives residents 'a break' from restrictions

Mahoney said his reasoning for loosening regulations is that death and hospitalization rates are down, better therapies are available if someone is seriously ill and cases are fairly stable.

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According to the Cass County State's Attorney, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney will not face any charges for revealing information on a candidate for the Fargo Police chief earlier in the year. WDAY file photo.

FARGO — Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who is the swing vote on the City Commission on pandemic emergency restrictions or mask mandates, said with spring in the air he's willing to loosen up and give residents a bit more room to breathe.

Thus, he voted to end the mask mandate in the city on March 22. This past week, he was j oined by the rest of the commission in unanimously ending his emergency powers .

Mahoney said his decisions are data-driven. With many of the key indicators for the virus in the city currently stable or trending downward, he said he stands by his decision. Adding to his optimism is the 50.9% of eligible residents in the county who have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Nonetheless, the mayor, who is a physician, said the push in the coming few weeks is to get even more people vaccinated by the end of April.

In the meantime, Mahoney said he was "willing to give it a break" when it comes to pandemic restrictions.

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Despite his positive outlook, Cass County is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases, with over 500 active cases in the county as of Thursday, April 8.

Although many businesses continue to require mask wearing, Mahoney said he noticed fewer people wearing masks in public the past few weeks.

If there is a sudden spike in numbers, he said, he wouldn't hesitate to ask the commission to reinstate the city emergency and a mask mandate. Across the Red River in Moorhead, a statewide mask mandate remains in place for all of Minnesota.

Mahoney said his reasoning for loosening regulations in Fargo is that death and hospitalization rates are down, better therapies are available if someone is seriously ill and cases are fairly stable.

One key measurement he uses is a fairly new tool available statewide to cities. It's a daily report on the virus positivity rate in wastewater which is showing a three-day current rate at 3% in Fargo, while testing numbers show a higher positivity rate of about 8% over the last two weeks.

The higher testing rate, he said, is due to the fact that people who suspect illness or were in contact with someone are the ones being tested which would provide that higher rate.

"You know you can't test everyone," he said. But with wastewater numbers, he gets a better glimpse at a citywide figure which often mirrors what officials see in case numbers.

Despite the positive signs, he still wants more people, especially younger people who are driving current increases in cases in the city, to get vaccinated.

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Mahoney said even young people who get the virus have from a 30% to 40% chance of getting a kidney, heart or other medical problem down the road. The vaccine has less than a 1% chance of causing any problems, and by preventing the virus can further prevent future medical issues, he said.

"We're going to push hard until the end of April to get everyone vaccinated," he said.

Fargo Cass Public Health Director Desi Fleming, who consults closely with the mayor, is hopeful that opening vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and over will boost numbers.

She said they were "super busy" about two weeks ago, but it's "somewhat of a struggle" now to get more people in to receive a vaccination.

With the variants increasing, Fleming said, it's even more important to get the vaccine. She echoed Mahoney in noting the risks of a negative reaction to the vaccine is far better than contracting the coronavirus.

During the pandemic, Fleming has not answered the question of if she believes a mask mandate should be put in place.

"It's just so political," she said.

From a public health viewpoint, though, she stressed that mask wearing is a key strategy that's still needed today to fight the virus, along with social distancing and avoiding large crowds.

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Fleming said the people who oppose wearing masks in public are the "vocal minority."

City Commissioner John Strand, who along with Commissioner Arlette Preston and Mahoney provided the needed three votes on the five-member commission for emergency powers and a city mask mandate, estimated two-thirds of the "hundreds, hundreds and hundreds" of emails he received were in favor of the mask mandate.

He agreed, though, with the mayor that at present people need to be "given room to make more personal choices" and voted with the rest of the commission to end the emergency powers.

"I do this guardedly, though, " he added. "My hope is that everything is going to be OK. "

Looking back at the past year, though, and evaluating the steps the city took, Strand found one particularly bothersome issue. He said he "can't fathom that during the worst pandemic in almost a century that it would evoke such civil strife" to instate a mask mandate in Fargo and across the nation.

Strand said when the statewide and city mandates were put in place late last year, the quick drop in cases showed that, without a doubt, "they worked."

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