BISMARCK — Shelley Lenz, the Democratic-NPL candidate for governor of North Dakota, unveiled a COVID-19 response plan Thursday, Sept. 17, that calls for a statewide mask mandate and the removal of politics from the approach to containing the viral illness.

In an exclusive interview with Forum News Service, the western North Dakota veterinarian said the four-page plan would guide her administration's pandemic response and pick up the pieces where she believes Gov. Doug Burgum has fallen short. Lenz and running mate Ben Vig will take on Republican incumbents Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford in the November general election.

North Dakota leads the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita over the last two weeks, according to The New York Times, but the state also maintains one of the most robust testing operations in the country, which means more infections are being discovered than in other states.

Lenz said the state is "in chaos and distress" and suggested it may have to fend off the health and economic effects of the virus for a few more years given the challenges in developing and distributing a vaccine. She said the state will "continue to suffer" without "a clearly articulated, well-managed and collaborative crisis management plan" that she argues Burgum has failed to provide.

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Mike Nowatzki, a spokesman for Burgum's office, said the governor's COVID-19 strategy and stewardship of the state during the pandemic have been successful. He pointed to the testing operation, low death rate and strong protection of vulnerable residents in North Dakota as examples.

Lenz's plan says the state must put in place proven preventative measures, such as a facemask requirement for residents and restrictions on indoor gatherings. She said taking these steps would slow the spread of the virus and eventually decrease testing needs.

North Dakota is one of 16 states that has not required masks in public, according to AARP.

Burgum has repeatedly dismissed a mask mandate for North Dakota, saying the state is relying on personal responsibility over government requirements. He has said a mask mandate might actively deter mask-wearing in the state because residents are highly independent and don't want the government to dictate their lives.

"Maybe in some other states (mask mandates) might work, but in North Dakota it doesn't matter what we do or what we say: There are people who will not wear a mask," Burgum said.

Lenz said Burgum has no proof that requiring masks would drive people not to wear them, adding evidence from other rural states suggests most residents would abide by a mask mandate. Lenz noted mandating masks now would be harder because of the line Burgum has drawn in the sand.

Another main feature of Lenz's plan is a proposed restructuring of the roles at the top of state government.

Lenz said she would create a non-elected position for an "incident commander" who would guide the state's pandemic response and decide on best practices without being tethered to the political realm. She said the person in the new role would have "military-like training" and a medical background, like former State Health Officer Dr. Andrew Stahl, who resigned abruptly last month and disagreed with Burgum on aspects of the state's COVID-19 response.

Lenz said the incident commander would hold press conferences instead of the governor and make important decisions like how best to implement a mask mandate. She said the non-political nature of the position would give the incident commander the freedom to "speak truth to power" without repercussions.

Burgum has said health officials shouldn't necessarily be making decisions that affect the entire state because they don't consider non-medical factors, like economic, financial, legal and political risk.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum wears a mask during an interview in Bismarck on Thursday, Sept. 3. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum wears a mask during an interview in Bismarck on Thursday, Sept. 3. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Nowatzki also noted the state already has the Unified Command, which fulfills the same responsibilities as Lenz's new position. The Unified Command is led by two non-elected officeholders: the governor's chief operating officer, Tammy Miller, and Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, the adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard. Nowatzki said Miller and Dohrmann's roles are not tied to politics.

Lenz's plan also promotes several common Democratic-NPL causes like paid medical leave for sick workers, extended unemployment insurance for out-of-work residents and increased access to health care through a public-private partnership.

When asked how the administration plans to pay for the costly programs, Vig said they would work with legislators to carve out money from one of the state's trust funds or the General Fund, but he did not specify further.

Lenz said she created her COVID-19 plan with the help of renowned epidemiologists Drs. Larry Brilliant and Scott Layne. She has repeatedly criticized Burgum's COVID-19 response as being "unscientific" and questioned which experts he is consulting.

Nowatzki said Burgum consults with a wide range of experts, including the White House Coronavirus Task Force, University of North Dakota medical school dean Dr. Joshua Wynne and various commerce leaders.