Non-essential businesses have been closed six weeks since coronavirus put a stranglehold on the state economy.
Nationwide, the grim economic toll from the coronavirus pandemic jumped Thursday when the government reported another 4.4 million people had filed new unemployment claims, bringing the five-week total to more than 26 million. The report is likely to intensify the national debate over when to lift restrictions that have helped fight the virus’s spread.
Gov. Doug Burgum on March 19 ordered gyms and movie theaters to close, while restaurants were shut down to anything but curbside pickup, take-out or delivery. Soon after, personal care businesses like massage, hair and nail salons were ordered closed.
With the recent spike in coronavirus cases here, is Burgum’s plan to reopen the economy May 1 still in place? In his daily briefings, Burgum said he’s still optimistic.
But, is this the appropriate time to reopen North Dakota?
Area residents do not have a clear consensus. While District 25 and 26 legislators are open to the idea, their constituents worry reopening businesses May 1 is too soon and will cause a coronavirus spike that could overwhelm healthcare systems.
Everyone is watching states like Georgia, Alaska and Oklahoma, which all opened for business Friday. Georgia’s move to reopen its economy is the most aggressive in the U.S., but many other states are also looking for ways to put people back to work, even while coronavirus still remains a public health threat. A coronavirus model routinely cited by the White House warns no state should be opening before May 1, and that Georgia shouldn’t reopen until June 19 — almost seven weeks from now.
'The state is ready'
North Dakota had 438 COVID-19 cases on April 16. One day later the number jumped 90 cases to 528. Since then, the state escalated to 584 cases on April 18, 626 on April 19, which increased to 677 two days later on April 21, according to information from the North Dakota Department of Health.
Last week on Friday, North Dakota had 748 positive coronavirus cases and 15 deaths. Then, only 17 people were hospitalized. To date, only 67 coronavirus cases here required hospitalizations since the state began tracking numbers six weeks ago.
Kathy Skroch of Lidgerwood, who represents District 26 in the North Dakota House, says that hospitalization number is telling. She wants select businesses to re-open, such as hair and nail salons, which can “easily” provide a surgical mask to clients and staff while taking precautions to keep everyone safe, she said.
Skroch said this isn’t the time to restart schools or allow visitation in long-term care facilities and hospitals as it is still important to protect the vulnerable and maintain social distancing guidelines. Skroch also said it is time to re-open bars as customers can maintain social distancing.
She points to businesses like Walmart and Menards being open, where people have gathered in large numbers throughout this public health scare. This pandemic is seriously affecting small businesses singled out for closure, which is why Skroch joined a number of legislators who signed a letter to the governor that asked him to re-open the economy.
“I am receiving messages from my constituents, begging that we get this economy rolling again,” she said.
One yes and two no’s
District 25 Sen. Larry Luick of Fairmount says reopening the economy should be up to the people. He doesn’t believe government should step on individual rights and worries about overreach right now, he said.
“How safe do you feel going out? What is your health condition? If you are in good health, go ahead and do what you want if you want to take that risk,” Luick said.
Forcing businesses to close isn’t right for North Dakota and its economy, Luick said. Common sense should rule the day. He said to be courteous, maintain social distancing and get the economy reopened, he said.
Luick said it still isn’t time for schools to reopen, especially since all North Dakota schools are equipped with distance education. Having the kids go back to school for those last few weeks would be chaotic, he said.
“All we can do is play the game the way it is in front of us today. Next week might be an entirely different game. We need to open these businesses, go with social distancing. If businesses can’t social distance, reprimand them with law enforcement since they are jeopardizing everyone as well,” Luick said.
Nathan Frolek of Lidgerwood worries about so many unknowns. He has asked himself repeatedly about when the economy should reopen and said he’s conflicted. No matter what happens, someone is going to be affected, he said.
“I want everyone to most importantly be safe and have faith, but I also want business owners to sleep at night not worrying about closing their businesses for good. Would a soft open with extra precautions in place be safe enough for most businesses? Maybe. However if we see a spike in numbers for those getting COVID-19, then we’re back to where we started,” he said.
Waiting a little longer would better prepare the state and business communities, he said. Every day that passes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is becoming more educated on the virus and processes improve.
Sandy Fossum wants to wait a little longer. Fossum realizes businesses can’t stay closed forever and that all businesses mandated to close are struggling, while some will never recover, she said.
“I do feel it is a little early. The numbers presented by the North Dakota Health Department indicate that the active cases are still climbing at a rapid pace and I am worried that if everything opens at once, the numbers will take off even faster,” Fossum said.
Wait a few more weeks
Sen. Jim Dotzenrod of Wyndmere said he wants to follow a European model that starts with small shops being open first, followed by larger stores two weeks later and restaurants in another two weeks instead of throwing a switch to allow all businesses to reopen, Dotzenrod said.
If North Dakota followed that model today, all businesses would reopen by mid-May, he said. Dotzenrod is watching Bobcat plants at Gwinner and Wahpeton, which reopened Sunday, April 19. He said these Doosan plants implemented strict protocols to keep employees safe, such as Plexiglas separation, masks and cleaning protocols.
“If that works for them, it tells me we can operate close to normal,” he said. “We cannot sustain long term with shops closed month after month after month.”
Betty Wettstein of Lidgerwood said North Dakota needs to remain closed a few more weeks. “I know a year from now we will be going, ‘woulda, coulda shoulda,’ but right now I have a young grandchild and I am missing precious time here,” she said.
Easter was hard for Wettstein, she said, as she typically cooks for her family. Instead of having everyone congregated, she called ahead and said Easter dinner was available for pickup, modeling what restaurants are forced to do to keep their doors open.
“I am missing my family around the table,” she said.
She still thinks North Dakota should stay the course and put trust in our public servants.