Port: The mask debate has jumped the shark

It's time to move on to a debate that might actually matter.

Brand new masks are handed out to people as they arrive to get free COVID-19 testing on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at the Moorhead Armory. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — We need to stop debating masks.

It's pointless.

Local politicians in Minot and Fargo have passed symbolic "mandates" they do not have the authority to enforce - seemingly to satisfy the pique of a cranky old rock star who griped about it on Twitter .

The language approved by a 5-2 vote of the Minot City Council literally says masks are "mandated with the strongest possible recommendation."

It's a mandated recommendation, you guys.


I'll pause for a moment so you can stop laughing.

Good now?


The only people who have the authority to pass an enforceable mandate are Gov. Doug Burgum and, when they're in session, the Legislature.

They probably aren't going to issue a mandate, and even if they do, I don't think it would help.

After weeks and weeks of endless carping about masks, we've reached the point where everyone who is going to wear a mask in North Dakota is already doing it.

Masks have become yet another proxy battle in our nation's endless partisan/culture war. A simplistic thing journalists and Facebook pundits can all talk about to avoid the more complex facets of the COVID-19 problem.

It's been a fruitless endeavor for a while now.


It's time to move on to a debate that might actually matter.

Instead of pie-throwing contests over broad mandates for all individuals and businesses, how about we get specific?

According to the latest numbers from the Department of Health, over the 408 deaths with COVID-19 that have happened since the beginning of the pandemic, 376 of them, or more than 92 percent, have been people over the age of 60.

Nearly 83% were over 70.

Almost 64% were over 80.

EMBED: COVID-19 cumulative deaths chart
Chart from the North Dakota Department of Health

Looking at hospitalizations, of the 153 people currently under care, over 81% are 60 years or older. More than 56% are over 70.


It's not a good thing for anyone to catch COVID-19 -- even for those who fully recover, which is just about everyone, there is a lot we don't know about the long-term impacts to their health -- but the demographic where the hammer blow of this awful pandemic has landed are the elderly.

Tell me, what has these pointless "mandates" passed in Minot and Fargo (and perhaps more cities by the time you've read this) done to make things safer for our most vulnerable populations, specifically?

We have wasted much time and much energy on a circular debate over masks. We haven't spent nearly enough time about what extraordinary and targeted policies could be put in place to protect the elderly and other at-risk populations.

Some of you may be inclined to argue that a mask mandate, even when unenforceable, might increase mask use and protect our more vulnerable citizens in the aggregate.

You're kidding yourselves. Again, everyone inclined to wear a mask is probably wearing one.

We need to focus our attention elsewhere.

What can we do to help protect the vulnerable?

Perhaps the state can create an incentive package for health care workers at places like nursing homes to quarantine? How about incentives for keeping older citizens at home?


I'm open to suggestions, but this is the debate we need to be having.

It may feel good for journalists and Twitter celebrities and political pundits to dunk on what they see as dumb, obstinate rubes who won't wear masks, but that schadenfreude isn't helping.

Your outage isn't helping.

Your symbolic mandates aren't helping.

Let's talk about things that will.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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