MINOT, N.D. — During a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Doug Burgum, while simultaneously reiterating his long-standing support for wearing masks during the pandemic, again declined to issue a mask mandate that would punish citizens for not wearing them.
"We've had a great track record so far of relying on personal responsibility, and I guess I'm still hoping in my heart of hearts that North Dakota can step up and figure out a way to get it done (through) local leadership and local execution," the typically candid Burgum said. "Maybe in some other states (mask mandates) might work, but in North Dakota, it doesn't matter what we do or what we say: There are people who will not wear a mask."
Many are having trouble seeing the logic in Burgum's position (which is one I share on this issue), so let me take a stab at explaining it.
The public has been inundated with information about masks. The government has done it at the federal, state and local levels. Burgum himself launched a statewide campaign called #MaskUpND. The news media, too, has prodded the public toward masking.
Still, there are holdouts.
We see them everywhere.
This is anecdotal, but when I visit the grocery store (while wearing my mask), I'd say the count is roughly 50-50 between those who are masking and those who aren't despite a big sign at the store's entrance encouraging patrons to cover their faces.
What are we to do about this situation?
Burgum's choice is to continue to extol the need for masks, hoping to persuade those folks to change their habits.
Burgum's critics would have us send cops after them, writing them tickets, or perhaps even frog-marching them out of the produce section in handcuffs.
Is that what we want?
Particularly at a time when there is already friction between law enforcement and the public-at-large?
I hate that the mask situation has become partisan, but there's no denying it has. The push for a mask mandate is, for the most part, coming from the left side of politics.
It grows out of a hubris that is at the heart of progressive politics: An unshakable belief that there is no problem facing our communities that cannot be remedied with the right laws. As if society were a giant computer that only needs to have the bugs programmed out of it.
This is foolishness.
I can understand the authoritarian impulse. I, too, get frustrated when I see people do things I don't like, which I believe are detrimental to the health or safety of our society. I have to resist that "there-oughta-be-a-law" attitude because, in many situations, passing a law would, at best, accomplish little.
At worst, it can exacerbate an already bad situation.
Those in favor of a mask mandate think that Burgum can wave a magic policy wand and fix the issue. They point to the places that have passed mandates, suggesting that they work while ignoring the fact that a place where a mask mandate is popular enough to implement, politically, probably has a lot of corresponding buy-in from the public.
Are the people there wearing masks because someone made it the law? Or were most of them already wearing masks voluntarily?
Whatever is going on elsewhere, Burgum rightly sees that in North Dakota, there is a lot of public resistance to masking. He wishes that wasn't so.
I do too.
Given that reality, the proper path forward is to encourage the public to choose masks. Win that battle, and the question of a mandate becomes irrelevant.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.