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Fargo, N.D., Mayor On His Citywide Mask Mandate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If a place where COVID-19 is surging is called a hotspot, then North Dakota is red hot. New cases of the coronavirus there have exploded in the last few weeks, especially in population centers like Bismarck, Grand Forks and Fargo. Fargo's mayor is a practicing surgeon, and Mayor Tim Mahoney joins us now.

Welcome.

TIM MAHONEY: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: North Dakota made it through the first several months of this pandemic pretty close to unscathed. What do you think changed?

MAHONEY: I think as people started in social gatherings, we saw an increased numbers. College students started - their school started at the same time. So all of a sudden, we went from not noticeable to No. 1 in the country, which is very disturbing. All the sports started back up, and it just seemed whereas we had more of our social people gathering about (ph), our numbers started to climb.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MAHONEY: We've been contact tracing all our people. So when you do that, that's where you start to find them.

SHAPIRO: You say you do contact tracing on all the people. Do you have enough contact tracers? I understand the system's getting overwhelmed.

MAHONEY: Yeah. So what happened is our contact tracing - we used to run numbers where we maybe have 20 to 40 people in Cass County a day. That jumped up to 200, 10 times the volume we had. We also had increased death rates, hospitalizations in the community as well. So when we started looking at the numbers, we felt that we needed to do something to move things to different direction.

SHAPIRO: Well, you instituted a massive mandate, which has been controversial. No other place in North Dakota has done that. And there is no enforcement mechanism, so how has compliance been so far?

MAHONEY: We've been very pleased with the compliance. We've had it now a week. And I was out over the weekend, and businesses all had notices up. You had to wear a mask. I think our compliance has jumped considerably throughout the community. Enforcement - we did have a trespass in one of our coffee shops where somebody said, I have COVID, was trying to spit on the staff.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MAHONEY: There are ways in which, on trespassing basis, you can arrest somebody if they don't behave properly.

SHAPIRO: That sounds really scary. I mean, did that person actually have COVID who was trying to spit on people in the coffee shop?

MAHONEY: No, he didn't, but he just wanted to make a point. So we explained to him a few things, and he respectfully left the building.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Earlier this month, you voted against a mask mandate. You said it was an emotional issue that would tear the city apart. What changed for you?

MAHONEY: Well, actually, the original motion I voted against was with enforcement. I just felt it put the policemen in a bad position to be arresting people for not wearing masks. So I did ask the commissioner to put up one without enforcement, which he declined. So the way I did my order is that I didn't need the permission of the commission. We just came out - I - all the stuff I was getting from health professionals was that we needed to do something because our numbers continued to climb. And it seemed to me is that we can move the dial a bit with wearing masks. That was very beneficial for the community.

SHAPIRO: But there has been a lot of controversy. I mean, there was a viral video in which one of your colleagues, City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, said that masks don't work, which is not supported by the science. What do you do to overcome this divide within your own community and your own city commission?

MAHONEY: Well, what we did is we've been trying to educate. And I actually feel that he misunderstood the reason of masks and now has changed his mind a bit on that. We know masks work. I've been a surgeon for 45 years, and patients don't get infected. You wear your mask. And this is a different type of disease - is that you need to do whatever tool you can use. So I think it does two things. You wear a mask. You are more inclined to social distance. You're more inclined to remember to wash your hands. And I think the combination of that helps, and that's what I'm betting on. So we've seen our numbers drop some. I'm going to see and watch what happens in the next 10 days. But I do feel that if people follow the science, it does work.

SHAPIRO: How is the economy doing? I know things were OK early on when Fargo didn't have a lot of cases. What about now?

MAHONEY: Well, it's kind of a funny community. We've had our biggest buildings boom that we've had for a while; second highest, I'm sure, because of interest rates. Our sales tax, which we thought would go down 10- to 15%, is running at 4% of where we expected it to be as well, so people are buying online. People are buying throughout the community. And so we've actually been getting through this without as much effects that we thought we might have. Our restaurants are open 25% in-house dining. I think overall, we've been mildly surprised that we're surviving it.

SHAPIRO: I imagine whatever outdoor dining has been happening in Fargo won't be happening much longer given the season change.

MAHONEY: You know, that outside dining gets a little tough when it's 25 degrees out and we have snow on the ground.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) But if anyone can tough it out, it's the North Dakotans.

MAHONEY: You know that well. We just wear our coats and sit outside.

SHAPIRO: Mayor Tim Mahoney of the city where I spent the first eight years of my life - Fargo, N.D.

Thank you for talking with us.

MAHONEY: Yeah, come visit us sometime. You'd enjoy it.

SHAPIRO: I'd love to. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.