BISMARCK — The North Dakota House of Representatives narrowly approved a bill that would prohibit state and local officials and schools from mandating face masks.

The lower chamber voted 50-44 on Monday, Feb. 22, to advance House Bill 1323 to the Senate.

The pushback on compulsory mask-wearing comes three months after the administration of Republican Gov. Doug Burgum imposed a statewide face covering mandate amid the nation's most severe COVID-19 outbreak. Burgum had previously expressed skepticism of mask requirements but changed his tune as the virus strained the state's hospital capacity. A handful of cities and counties, including Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck, independently required mask use in public prior to the state mandate, which expired in January.

The state's COVID-19 case count plummeted after the local and state mandates were issued, but health experts say a combination of factors, like restrictions on businesses and greater adherence to social distancing, likely played into the drop in infections.

The North Dakota House of Representatives voted 50-44 on Monday, Feb. 22, to advance House Bill 1323. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature
The North Dakota House of Representatives voted 50-44 on Monday, Feb. 22, to advance House Bill 1323. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature

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Minot Republican Rep. Jeff Hoverson, the bill's sponsor, painted government-issued mask requirements as part of a larger conspiracy driven by "unelected, wealthy bureaucrats who are robbing our freedoms and perpetuating lies." Hoverson said North Dakota should be free like its sister state to the south and called mask mandates "diabolical silliness."

Lidgerwood Republican Rep. Kathy Skroch and several other bill supporters claimed without evidence that mask-wearing doesn't help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found strong evidence that widespread mask-wearing is effective in mitigating transmission of the virus.

Rep. Jason Dockter, a Bismarck Republican, spoke against the bill, saying the state should give cities, counties and schools "local control" of their affairs. No other lawmakers spoke against the legislation. A spokesman for Burgum declined to comment on the bill.

Both chambers of the Legislature have required that masks or face shields be worn in areas of the Bismarck Capitol building under the branch's control, though the rule is lightly enforced and oft ignored by lawmakers. House Speaker Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, reminded legislators to wear their masks on the chamber floor Monday, but he noted the rule may be reexamined in the next few weeks.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the bill would apply to private businesses.