Birx Calls North Dakota's Lack of Mask Wearing 'Deeply Unfortunate' As Cases Continue to Soar

Coronavirus tax force member, Deborah Birx has clashed with North Dakota governor Doug Burgum over the state's lack of a mask mandate, saying the city of Bismarck was one of the worst she had seen for mask usage in the whole country.

North Dakota is one of the few states remaining that have no specific rules on mask wearing, with Gov. Burgum instead favoring people to take personal responsibility and wear them through choice, rather than making it a legal requirement.

Birx, visited Bismarck as part of a tour of the U.S. Speaking at an event on Monday, she said mask use in the city was the worst she had seen in the 40 states she had visited.

"Over the last 24 hours, as we were here and we were in your grocery stores and in your restaurants and frankly even in your hotels, this is the least use of masks that we have seen in retail establishments of any place we have been," Birx told AP. She called this lack of mask wearing "deeply unfortunate."

North Dakota currently has the worst rate of infection for coronavirus in the entire U.S. Cases there shot up around the middle of August and health authorities are now recording close to 1,000 cases per day. Most new cases are being diagnosed in people aged between 20 and 29.

With cases in the state increasing, Burgum has come under increasing pressure to introduce a mask mandate. While some city officials have now issued requirements on local levels, officials say it is not enough to curb the spread of the virus. Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken told KFYR-TV that a statewide mandate would be more effective as people in North Dakota are highly mobile, so local rules would have limited impact.

Mark Jendrysik, a political scientist from the University of North Dakota, spoke about the state government's refusal to introduce a mask mandate ahead of Birx's visit.

He told Grand Forks Herald newspaper: "I think part of it is just natural North Dakota bull-headed intransigence. We don't like to be told what to do. We're independent. I think cues from political leaders are vital here. If the president had come out in early April and said 'Everybody wear a mask,' I don't think there would be a question [of wearing them].

"Everything's political. I think [Burgum is] calculating that mandates and stringent regimes are not popular with the voters."

In other states where mask mandates were introduced, case numbers have fallen. Evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that wearing a mask helps reduce virus transmission.

Birx praised North Dakota's testing efforts, saying the state was doing a "superb job" of finding new cases. However, she also said there is a whole sector of asymptomatic people who are not adhering to social distancing guidelines or wearing masks.

"There is not only ... evidence that masks work," KFYR-TV quotes Birx as saying. "There is ... evidence that masks utilized as a public health mitigation effort work."

She said people who refuse to wear masks should think about others when making that decision.

"Together we're deciding not to mitigate against this community spread," Birx said. "We're making a choice to keep North Dakota children out of the schools by deciding that my personal freedom is more important than that child's education, or my personal freedom is more important ... than caring for a North Dakotan in a long-term care facility."

Correction 10/29 9.53 a.m. ET: The headline of this article has been corrected to say Birx called the lack of mask wearing unfortunate, not the lack of a statewide mask mandate.

Deborah Birx
Coronavirus task force member Deborah Birx at the White House on September 30, 2020. Birx says mask usage in Bismarck was the worst she had seen in the country. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images