FARGO — Using his emergency powers, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney has issued a mandatory mask order requiring the wearing of face coverings in the city.

The order also encourages all stores and businesses to adopt policies prohibiting entry without wearing masks.

The mandate, announced at the Monday, Oct. 19, City Commission meeting, affects residents in all indoor and outdoor environments where wearers are exposed to non-household members and where social distancing of six feet or more cannot be assured.

The mandate replaces a directive passed in July and took effect immediately. It will last as long as the city emergency is in effect. The City Commission will determine when the emergency is over.

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The West Fargo City Commission discussed issuing a mask mandate at its Monday meeting as well, after commissioners got word of Fargo's order. A mandate was brought forth by Commissioner Brad Olson as a non-agenda item. The city created a small committee that includes Olson and Commissioner Mark Simmons to examine the issue that could be brought to the commission as a special meeting agenda item later this week.

Mahoney and Fargo Cass Public Health Director Desi Fleming made the case for the mandate in Fargo, noting the steadily increasing number of cases and hospitalizations, only two staffed ICU beds available in Fargo and an anticipated jump in deaths if the infection rate doesn't start to drop.

The mayor said 153 people are currently hospitalized in city facilities with the virus. Many people are delaying cancer and coronary care, and "if we don't be careful we'll be overwhelming our hospitals."

He also pointed to the state's climbing death count, now at 408.

Mahoney said public health contact tracers were behind by 300 people on calls, and more city workers were coming down with COVID-19. The city's public health board, 65 pediatricians across the state and the state medical association encouraged the mandate, he added

In a Friday letter, the public health board said, "Given masking has proven to be an effective means of slowing the spread of COVID-19, the Fargo Cass Public Health Board of Health actively supports legislation, regulation and/or other national, state and local measures to mandate the use of face coverings during this public health emergency.

"With the absence of statewide efforts, we urge you to pass such legislation at the local level."

Mahoney emphasized there will be no penalty for not wearing a mask.

"We must all do our part, though," he said. "Each one of us must do more."

Commissioners Arlette Preston and John Strand both thought the positivity rate of over 10% might be the point where some enforcement needs to be put in place but agreed the mayor's mandate was "a great step forward."

Preston urged the mayor to "use his bully pulpit to correct disinformation" about mask wearing.

"People are looking to you and to us for leadership," she said.

Preston said she'd heard reports that some bars were still being overcrowded with no masks or social distancing.

She called out Commissioners Dave Piepkorn and Tony Gehrig for "disobeying rules" as they came to the meeting and into City Hall not wearing masks. They remained unmasked throughout the two-hour meeting.

"We are better than this," Preston said. "If we pitch in with this as has been done multiple times with flooding, we will come out of this as a better community. I know we are tired, but we can't see each other as expendable."

Strand praised the mayor for "stepping up" and yielding to his "better angels."

"I know the pressure has been immense," he said.

Piepkorn and Gehrig were silent throughout the mandate discussion.

The mandate allows for numerous exceptions, including children younger than school age, people with medical conditions, athletic activities, those consuming food or beverages at a restaurant or bar, in certain jobs and at churches.

Mahoney's move came on the heels of an announcement late last week by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who heightened the COVID-19 risk level of a number of counties, including Cass County, to "orange," a move that required heightened pandemic safety protocols.

Earlier this month, Mahoney cast the deciding vote on whether the City Commission should consider a mask order.

In voting no, Mahoney said at the time that a mandate was an emotional issue and he believed it would tear the city apart.

At Monday's meeting, he called the past two weeks "unprecedented."

"It's about science, not politics. It's about our community," he said. "It's going to be a difficult next couple of weeks, but we need to get this going in the other direction."