FARGO — The odds of a local mask mandate returning appear low despite climbing COVID-19 cases, with Fargo's mayor worried such a measure would meet little public support.
Mayor Tim Mahoney said hospitals have yet to ask the city for a mask mandate to help curb the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.
Instead, he said, health providers continue to stress the importance of getting vaccinated and taking other precautions to protect against COVID-19. Vaccines have proven highly effective in preventing serious cases resulting in hospitalization or death, according to health experts.
“The health systems haven’t come to us asking for that yet,” Mahoney said on Tuesday, Sept. 7, referring to a mask mandate. “They’ve been pushing the vaccine.”
So far, the building wave has not progressed as rapidly as expected — but that could change now that students are back in school and with the return of big sporting events, he said.
Testing indicates the positivity rate in Cass County is hovering around 5% to 6%, compared to the expected 11% or 12%, Mahoney said.
Mahoney said he does not believe the public would support a mask mandate until the situation clearly becomes urgent.
Given current conditions, “I think it would be extremely hard to do a mask mandate,” the mayor said, adding that there were “few if any” masked fans in the stands at Saturday’s Bison football game.
Mahoney also noted the ongoing controversy over masks in F-M area schools. Public schools in Fargo and Moorhead require students to wear masks, while West Fargo public schools encourage students to wear masks.
Parents have protested mask orders in local schools. One group opposed to a mask requirement in Fargo Public Schools recently announced it had enough signatures to trigger a recall election for the school board.
In recent weeks, staffed hospital beds have been a concern as COVID-19 cases climb, adding pressure to hospitals already near capacity with cases unrelated to the pandemic.
As of Monday, Sept. 6, hospitals in Fargo had 26 available hospital beds, including five intensive care beds and one pediatric intensive care bed, according to state figures.
Cass County accounted for 533 or 20.5% of North Dakota’s 2,590 active cases as of Tuesday, Sept. 7. Cass County’s positivity rate was 10.2%, compared to 9.7% statewide, according to state figures.
Last October, as hospitals strained to keep up with COVID-19 patients and before the availability of vaccines, Fargo implemented a local mask mandate. Many other cities around the state adopted local mask mandates.
Now, 18 months into the pandemic and months after vaccines became widely available, officials are more reluctant to impose mask requirements on the public. Minnesota’s statewide mask mandate has expired.
A big unknown, Mahoney said, is the number of people who have acquired natural immunity after being infected by the virus. In Cass County, 61.9% of residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 57.6% have completed their primary vaccine course.
“I hope we’re getting close to herd immunity,” Mahoney said, noting that in Manitoba, where 75% of the population is vaccinated, the virus is spreading slowly.
Sanford Health’s pandemic model suggests the current wave could peak around Sept. 24 or 25, although the virus’ incidence has lagged behind expectations so far, Mahoney said.
“That’s what I’m watching,” he said. “It’s not jumping as fast as we thought.”
But with schools back in session and more people gathering indoors, the situation could change, he added.
“If we’re going to start to climb,” Mahoney said, “it would be soon.”