By Annie Prafcke
Fargo, ND – Mayor Mahoney issued a city-wide mask mandate on Oct. 19th, shortly after North Dakota became the state with the largest number of new cases per capita in the US, a record it continues to hold. The mandate requires everyone in Fargo to wear a mask in public spaces where they interact with people outside of their household and where social distancing is not guaranteed. Many exceptions are included in the mandate, such as those for individuals with medical conditions, young children, and people eating or drinking at restaurants and bars. While Mahoney is hopeful that the mandate, which lacks enforcement, will get more Fargo citizens to mask up, not all local businesses are encouraging their customers to do the same.
Mahoney says he omitted enforcement to the mandate partially to avoid possible negative interactions between citizens and police. He believes enforcement is unnecessary and states he has already noticed a 20-30% increase in compliance since the mandate was issued.
“The real idea is to get people to wear masks and to get better compliance,” he says. “Both of which we get without enforcement.”
Mahoney believes the mandate, even without enforcement, is beneficial to local businesses because it makes it easier for them to carry out their own mask policies without worrying about competing with other establishments that are more lax with masking.
“It equalizes the playing field,” Mahoney states. “What I got a lot from businesses is that we’re trying to comply but the business down the street isn’t and that puts us in a bad position.”
Lauren Kleinschmidt, manager of Pepper’s Sports Cafe, says prior to the city-wide mandate, her staff was required to mask up and customers were encouraged to do the same. Since the Oct. 19th mandate, Pepper’s has intensified cleaning and is upholding stricter enforcement of their mask policy. Kleinschmidt says it is helpful to know that she now has the law behind her and can call the police if a customer becomes belligerent when asked to wear a face covering. So far, Pepper’s has not had any compliance issues.
Yet, while many local establishments are adhering to the city-wide mandate and some created their own mask requirements before it was implemented, other business owners find the mandate difficult to enforce.
Jeff Fonder, general manager of Dempsey’s Public House, says they have been trying to adhere to North Dakota Department of Health guidelines as best they can, but customers tell him that other bars are more lenient. He fears losing their business.
“Unfortunately just because a lot of bar businesses aren’t following it [the mandate], we’ve fallen into that category where we’re still trying to be smart about it but we’ve loosened up a little bit . . .” Fonder says. He adds that if a customer enters Dempsey’s without a face covering, his staff will offer one of the free masks Dempsey’s provides. However, if they refuse to comply, they are admitted and simply asked to socially distance.
Fonder says Dempsey’s was stricter with masking and maintaining a 50% occupant capacity at the onset of the pandemic, but it has become difficult to make ends meet since business has been slow for so many months. He says they currently allow 60-75% occupant capacity so they can cover expenses.
“We’re trying to do the best we possibly can without detracting business,” Fonder states. “We still have to pay the bills at the end of the day.”
Aaron Templin, owner of Front Street Taproom, also says his establishment does not enforce the mask mandate for customers but staff are required to mask up. He worries about the challenges of enforcing the mandate because business has significantly decreased in the past few weeks. He says he is not in a position to potentially upset customers.
“We don’t want to create tension if we don’t feel like we need to,” he says.
So far, no Front Street employee has tested positive for COVID-19 and no customers have contacted Templin about being exposed.
Austin Foss, an architectural designer in Fargo, has chosen to stay out of bars and restaurants for the past three weeks. He says the rise in North Dakota’s COVID-19 cases and his perception that bars are not promoting face coverings have deterred him from going out for drinks.
Foss says he felt more comfortable going to bars during the summer when owners seemed to be more diligent about maintaining 50% or less occupant capacity and requiring customers to stay in their seats while unmasked. However, in the past month, Foss believes that compliance among businesses has decreased and many bars are ignoring essential COVID-19 safety procedures.
He says, “I felt like they were adhering to the rules really well in June and July and then it just slowly got worse and worse and worse to now . . . I don’t think that they are following anything.”
Foss believes that many of the businesses that are now requiring customers to wear face coverings are establishments that had their own mask policies prior to the implementation of the city-wide mandate. He says he is unsure that it has changed the actions of those that did not already have these policies in place.
“. . . I feel like the mandate is only going to affect the bars that didn’t require masks going into it and I don’t really know if they do now,” Foss adds.
Commissioner John Strand is also unconvinced the mask mandate has made much of a difference in getting more people to mask up. “Whether they’re working or not, the jury is still out,” he says. “My sense is that if we have mandates without enforcement that don’t work adequately, we have to be prepared to step up and add enforcement mechanisms . . . ”
Overall, Strand hopes that Fargo citizens will move beyond the mask argument so that we can address more pressing challenges that COVID-19 has brought to our community. “We should get past these decisions one by one by one and get to new decisions that help us to mitigate problems that people in the community are facing,” he says.
Mayor Mahoney concurs, stating that he understands that everyone is tired of the coronavirus, and masking reminds us of its looming presence. However, he believes wearing a mask in public is a minor sacrifice and, given the high number of cases in North Dakota at present, is a necessity to maintain everyone’s health and safety. “It’s an inconvenience, yes, but it’s not like other things we could do,” he states. “. . . The reality is with public health, it’s what you have to try to do . . . It’s really to avoid the bad consequences of catching this disease.”
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