Fargo to draft mask mandate in case COVID-19 cases continue steep climb
FARGO — Just in case COVID-19 cases continue to increase, Fargo's City Commission voted 3-2 on Monday night, Sept. 21, to have a citywide mask mandate prepared for possible use down the road.
City Attorney Erik Johnson will prepare two options for possible consideration, one with enforcement provisions and one without, and both will have time limits.
Any mandate would follow what the commission already approved, which is a "directive" to wear masks in public settings.
Monday's vote followed what was perhaps the largest number of residents to address the commission on an issue in years.
About 20 speakers addressed the commission, although many more were signed up to speak, and the city chambers were almost full.
The speakers ranged from a doctor who said masks work, to residents who thought it was an infringement on their constitutional rights to be forced to wear masks, to others who claimed masks don't work.
Fargo Cass Public Health Director Desi Fleming started the public discussion by saying cases were "significantly increasing" in the city and county since August.
Even though coronavirus cases are increasing mostly among younger people, she warned that the medical profession is beginning to see long-term health effects in healthy adults even if symptoms were mild.
She said COVID-19 is becoming a "bigger deal" for younger people because of those concerns.
Fleming also expressed concerns about people not complying with the county's 23 contact tracers. Those workers ask people with the virus who they have been near and then contact them.
"As a state, we have been making national news lately, (and) not in a positive way," Fleming said. "We need to get better with compliance with masks, social distancing, hygiene and listening to science to get through the next six to eight months."
At some point, she said, there may have to be "unpopular decisions."
"The reality is we are a long way from being normal," Fleming said.
There were many speakers who disagreed about mask wearing and the effect the virus has on most people.
Commissioner John Strand, who is leading the effort to instate a mask mandate out of concern for public health, said he wanted to try to find some type of compromise.
Janet Wendell expressed her opinion that masks simply don't work and called them "disgusting."
"They don't look human," she said, adding children are becoming emotionally affected by them.
Andrew Peterson said he refused to put masks on his children.
"It's very unhealthy," he said.
And if there was no enforcement to a mask mandate, Peterson asked, "why even bring it forward?"
Loretta Smith downplayed the effects of COVID-19, saying there was above a 99% survival rate and claiming the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has misrepresented numbers.
Dr. Jane Winston, speaking in support of the mandate, told the crowd that numbers are confusing, but deaths and cases are "definitely going up" in the city.
"Masks work scientifically and are a vital public health measure," Winston said.
Also supporting the mandate was a group of about 24 young people who stood together, all wearing masks, with several addressing the crowd.
JJ Daniels, a server, said he thought it was disrespectful if people he's waiting on aren't wearing masks, because he needs to go to work to survive economically. Claire Derby also thought it was disrespectful to people like her aunt who works in the COVID unit at Sanford Health.
Fargo mayor Tim Mahoney, in comments after residents spoke, said he and commissioners were flooded with emails since word of a possible mandate became public a few days ago. He said about 80% were against the mandate and he didn't favor it for the time being.
"There's an emotional response to the word mandate, and that will tear our community apart," Mahoney said.
However, he was the key vote in advancing the mandate to the next possible step with Strand and Commissioner Arlette Preston also in favor.
The two commissioners against the mandate, Tony Gehrig and Dave Piepkorn, remained silent after the testimony and simply voted against it.
Strand said he was listening to the comments and wouldn't be opposed to exceptions to a mask mandate if it is approved. The exceptions, he said, could include children under 10, people with medical concerns, people eating or drinking in a public place, driving, voting or being involved in a religious or athletic activity.
Preston, in defense of her vote to study the issue further, said there was an online petition supporting the mandate that had gathered 1,060 signatures. She said the petition noted that cases were six times higher than they were a month ago, and it was "a matter of life and death."