FARGO — Mayor Tim Mahoney is urging North Dakota officials to allow a greater reopening of businesses, including increasing the allowed capacity at bars and restaurants to increase from 50% to 75%.

Despite a significant increase in testing capacity, the state’s coronavirus infection rate has been trending down, from 6% to 8% testing positive to 2% to 4%.

“You can look at national data,” Mahoney said. “You won’t see that in any other state.”

Also, he said, the state’s death rates are below expected levels — all factors that justify an expansion of reopening the economy in Fargo, he said in remarks Wednesday, May 27, during a briefing by the Red River Valley COVID-19 Task Force.

“I think it’s time to open that up,” he said, referring to expanding the reopening of businesses.

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Katelin Teegarden, left, and Heather Talma enjoy a snack Wednesday, May 27, in the outdoor seating of T & Crepe in downtown Fargo. Mayor Tim Mahoney would like to allow bars and restaurants to increase seating capacity above 50%. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Katelin Teegarden, left, and Heather Talma enjoy a snack Wednesday, May 27, in the outdoor seating of T & Crepe in downtown Fargo. Mayor Tim Mahoney would like to allow bars and restaurants to increase seating capacity above 50%. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Another positive sign is that hospitalizations for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have plateaued and remain well within capacity, the mayor said.

“We’ve got to learn to live with this virus,” Mahoney said later in an interview. “It’s not going away."

If restaurants and bars are allowed to operate at 75% capacity, they still would have room to maintain some physical distancing of their patrons, he said.

Several forecasting models of the pandemic in North Dakota show infections are decreasing and will continue to decline, although one model predicts a peak will arrive around June 15, Mahoney said.

"I think the next 10 days will tell that," he said. "I think we're leaning on the downward slope. We're making progress."

Mahoney said he has been prodding the office of Gov. Doug Burgum with his expanded reopening request and is waiting to hear back.

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A spokesman for Burgum said an announcement concerning North Dakota's phased business restart plan could come soon.

"Conditions are being evaluated on a daily basis," spokesman Mike Nowatzki said. "Gov. Burgum plans to provide an update on the ND Smart Restart during Friday’s press briefing, and any announcements would be made then."

Still, Mahoney and others at the task force briefing stressed the continued need for people to take precautions, including wearing a mask and maintaining a safe distance from others.

Cass County now accounts for more than half of the 2,500 or more tests the state is doing daily, Mahoney said, and the task force is aiming that testing effort at high-risk populations, including residents of nursing homes, assisted living centers and other congregate living settings.

Many people are focusing on the increase in positive cases in Cass County, which continue to rise and account for about 65% of the state’s total, but the increase in positive cases is because of increased testing, not an increase in infections, said Desi Fleming, director of Fargo Cass Public Health.

“With targeted testing the numbers will go up before they can go down,” she said.

Testing is critical to identify those who have the virus — 35% of whom show no symptoms at the time of testing — so they can be quarantined and their close contacts can be identified and isolated to prevent spreading the virus, she said.

On average, each person who tests positive has five close contacts. Contact tracers in Cass County are tracking 595 active cases and 1,200 contacts, Fleming said.

With a positive testing rate now ranging between 2% and 4%, “That means that we are isolating this virus,” Mahoney said.

The mayor said that when he went to a grocery store recently, he estimated that 80% of people were wearing masks — a safeguard that's been shown to help reduce the spread of tiny droplets containing the virus.

North Dakota ranks third in the nation in per-capita testing for coronavirus infection, said Dr. Paul Carson, a physician who teaches public health at North Dakota State University and serves on the task force.

Also, North Dakota tops the nation in per-capita contact tracers. “North Dakota is well staffed and well ready to follow up on the positives we identify,” he said.

Although the total number of positive cases continues to rise in North Dakota — reaching 2,439 cases reported as of Wednesday — the number of new cases has been relatively stable, indicating that the state has succeeded in “flattening the curve” to slow the spread, Carson said.

More than seven of 10 — 72% — of North Dakota's positive cases have recovered.

Precautions such as wearing a mask, avoiding groups and maintaining physical distance from others have “markedly” reduced the spread of the virus, he said.

Kathy McKay, administrator of Clay County Public Health, said more than 855 tests were conducted recently in Moorhead in one of six mass testing events around Minnesota. Those who tested positive will be notified soon, she said.

As of Wednesday, Cass County had 1,596 positive cases and 45 deaths, and Clay County had 406 positive cases and 25 deaths.

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