BISMARCK — When COVID-19 took hold in the United States, it looked like Gov. Doug Burgum's moment. The former Microsoft executive, who ran for governor championing a CEO's approach, seemed to have a challenge perfectly suited to his data-first style.

But it soon became clear that Burgum was in what one friend, Fargo City Commissioner John Strand, called "something akin to a pickle."

Burgum, known for his go-his-own-way leadership, proved prescient early on, stressing in the confusing first days of March that the new virus was likely to reach North Dakota. As it took hold on the coasts, he invested heavily in testing, building a statewide apparatus that has consistently ranked among the largest of any state.

But as the world learned more about COVID-19, pandemic governance became thornier. In a deeply Trump-friendly state (in November, the president drew his second-largest margin of victory in North Dakota), a dismissive tone set by the White House laid the groundwork for the slow, reluctant adoption of masks. North Dakota led the country in new per capita cases and deaths for close to two months this fall while Burgum routinely rejected calls for a statewide mask mandate or other direct interventions.

"You can’t walk into someone’s house and wrestle a mask on them. It isn’t going to happen," Burgum said in mid-October, when there were about 4,200 confirmed active cases in North Dakota. By the time he flipped, installing a mask mandate and business restrictions a month later, cases had soared over 10,000.

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Like Strand, other Burgum supporters insist the governor was in a difficult position: caught between an urgent need for public compliance and what he diagnosed as North Dakota’s preference for the "light touch" of government — a trait that has led many residents to shun mask guidelines this year.

On one side of the governor, a vocal faction — including some elected officials — flouted pandemic precautions and decried government overreach. On the other, national media outlets turned their sights on a worst-in-class outbreak in North Dakota and local doctors and medical associations urged the governor to install a mask mandate.

"It was really the national election that was the factor," the governor told Forum News Service in an interview earlier this month. Burgum, who was elected to a second term in November, doesn’t point any fingers at President Donald Trump, but he’s quick to name the challenges of navigating pandemic politics. "Everything about pandemic response, whether it was masking or education mediums or the vaccine — every single aspect of that became politically divisive," he said.

But even with national politics setting the terms, Burgum rejected notions that they had any bearing on his response. Instead, he insisted that he was guided by data and data alone.

"We said on Day 1 that we were going to make decisions based on data, not on ideology," Burgum said. While the rest of the country descended into yet another partisan battle, the governor argued that a commitment to the numbers buoyed North Dakota above the political fray. "I think we were kind of immune to that," he said.

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But critics of the state's response don't buy it. Some argued that the governor fell short of his data-centric aspirations this year, allowing politics to direct his decisions instead.

“All I can think of is that the voices on the right got louder,” said Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat who served as North Dakota’s congressman for 18 years. Pomeroy argued that Burgum was “cowed” by a vocal minority and struggled to break step from the Trump-aligned response championed by Gov. Kristi Noem in South Dakota.

“He became frozen in place,” Pomeroy said. “He let Kristi Noem define what Republicans do in the Great Plains instead of deciding for himself based on science and medicine.”

'Government doesn’t function like Microsoft'

As other states remained under lockdown this spring, Burgum looked to mitigate partisanship over masks. One emotional plea, from a news conference in late May, went viral around the country. Cautioning against an emerging "senseless dividing line," Burgum called on the state to embrace empathy.

"I would really love to see in North Dakota, if we could just skip this thing that other parts of the nation are going through," he said before choking back tears. “If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support. They might be doing it because they have a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their family who currently have COVID, and they’re fighting.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (left) appears with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a news conference Oct. 26 at Bismarck State College. Kyle Martin / The Forum
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (left) appears with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, during a news conference Oct. 26 at Bismarck State College. Kyle Martin / The Forum

On national news networks, the message was received as a beacon of nonpartisan hope. At the same time, Burgum’s Big Tech pedigree lent comfort to some on the other side of the aisle.

"I thought, 'Our governor is tied into some of the best thinking in the tech world about how we’re going to respond,'" Pomeroy recalled of the pandemic's early days. "And then it just completely stalled out. As the country learned more, North Dakota didn’t move any further."

By the time an outbreak began surging in North Dakota in the late summer and fall, the partisan lines that Burgum had decried in May were firmly entrenched. Masks, social distancing — the pandemic itself — had become political totems, in North Dakota as much as anywhere else.

But when the governor looked back on the worst stretches of the pandemic, he expressed frustration at the shift in the national tone on North Dakota's response, to what he saw as politically motivated targeting of a red state.

"There was a national narrative that I think was trying to support a national political position," Burgum said. He argued that observers around the country cherry-picked data to make out Trump-friendly states such as North Dakota as failed responders, ignoring the massive testing infrastructure deployed by his health department and its influence on the state's case numbers. "I think that was a clear strategy," he said.

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A robust testing effort does not explain how North Dakota became the national leader in per capita deaths for nearly two months, or why the state's hospital system was balanced on its breaking point. But Burgum noted that frequent testing in nursing homes may have inflated North Dakota's count of recorded COVID-19 deaths relative to states with less diligent testing. (South Dakota, for instance, had administered a quarter the number of per capita tests as North Dakota to date.) When the pandemic is through, Burgum argued, "it is going to be very difficult to do state-versus-state comparisons on death data" without a full picture of who was being tested.

But fairly or not, North Dakota held its claim to these superlatives for much of the fall, while pressure built on the local and national level for the governor to intervene.

Strand said he and his old college friend (the two shared a ticket for elected office at North Dakota State University, with Burgum winning student body president and Strand serving as his vice president) have exchanged messages over the course of the pandemic. The Fargo city commissioner was one of North Dakota’s earliest proponents of mask mandates, advocating for them at the local level as far back as July, and he said that he prevailed, in messages and an extensive phone call, on his old NDSU running mate to be open to instituting a statewide mandate.

Still, Strand said he expected the governor would have to balance the input against competing concerns. He recognized that his opinion was just one point in a much larger dataset. "Doug does not shoot from the hip," he said, "Doug is obsessed. He will analyze until he’s blue in the face."

But as COVID-19 cases took an upward turn in the late summer, Burgum resisted the guidance of medical advisers. The governor struggled to hold down medical experts at the top of his Department of Health: three chief health officers left their posts abruptly during the pandemic, and the current interim occupant has no medical training. And two top doctors frequently cited as primary advisers by the Burgum administration told Forum News Service that during the fall outbreak they were not consulted on plans for a mask mandate or other direct interventions until the last week of October.

While doctors and some personal friends lobbied the governor for a mask mandate, constituent opposition took on teeth in the state's conservative Legislature. Burgum has nursed a rocky relationship with lawmakers since his initial campaign, and his CEO style and a few political feuds may have reopened old wounds in the pandemic. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert predicted a legislative response to the string of executive orders this year, including measures to curtail those powers in the upcoming session.

Former House Majority Leader Al Carlson, who lost reelection two years into Burgum's first term, said he believes the governor's unilateral actions during the pandemic added strain to a relationship already in need of repair. "He needs to have a greater appreciation of the separation of powers," Carlson said. "Government doesn’t function like Microsoft."

Pomeroy argued that Burgum's hands were never really tied from issuing a mask mandate. He said Burgum allowed his own reading of the political climate to overshadow his own expertise, a mistake that he said resulted in unnecessary deaths.

"I think he’s probably the smartest governor we've had in 50 years," the former congressman said. "But I’m telling you right now, with this COVID thing, he has a record of failure unmatched in my lifetime in state leadership."

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum holds a COVID-19 news conference on Oct. 23 in Bismarck. Kyle Martin / The Forum
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum holds a COVID-19 news conference on Oct. 23 in Bismarck. Kyle Martin / The Forum

'Critics in the stands'

When the pandemic ends, mid-November will undoubtedly mark a pivotal moment in the North Dakota story. On the night of Nov. 13, 10 days after his own reelection and Trump's defeat, Burgum reversed on months of rejecting a statewide mask mandate.

Active cases peaked the same day at 10,295. Four days after that, the positivity rate crested at 15.7%. Since then, both metrics have dropped as quickly as they climbed. Virus hospitalizations have plummeted by more than 200 people.

"I suppose, practically speaking, we needed to all get past the election. And then realities change," Strand said. The Fargo city commissioner said he believes Burgum's response will be measured kindly in the history books, and he commended the governor for having the courage and backbone to modify his response. "I was counting on that. And he did. And thank goodness he did. It's having a profoundly quantifiable effect," he said.

But Burgum pushed against suggestions that the statewide mask mandate has been the primary driver of North Dakota's turnaround. He emphasizes a convergence of factors, including the patchwork of local mask directives that predated the statewide mandate, bar restrictions and a steadily growing population of residents with personal ties to the virus. And he maintains that he approved direct action at just the right time to skirt "a red line" of depleting hospital beds.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum holds a COVID-19 news conference on Oct. 23 in Bismarck. Kyle Martin / The Forum
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum holds a COVID-19 news conference on Oct. 23 in Bismarck. Kyle Martin / The Forum

“It’s just impossible to have even a credible discussion or argument about one single action and whether or not that would have led to different outcomes,” he argued. “They’re picking one thing — a statewide mask mandate — among a thousand variables and then trying to speculate .... I don’t find it useful or creative or even interesting.”

The governor called it "odd" and "untimely" that anyone should want to assess the state's performance when the pandemic is still ongoing. Some of the sources for this story, he suggested, are "critics in the stands" who don't have credibility on the high stakes decisions that fall to his office. And Burgum argued that observers' focus on the mandate confuses correlation and causation. "It’s ridiculous, and I think at some level, the idea that either we were 'frozen in place' or making political decisions, that’s offensive to all the front line people that are battling to save lives," he said.

And while Burgum isn’t yet keen to reflect back on the last nine months, he argued that he and his team always made the best possible decisions on the information they had at the time. "Could you always use better information, better data? Of course," he said.

For one former occupant of Burgum’s office, though, the governor's marriage to the data may have been his vulnerability when it came to the charged decision point on the mask mandate.

The virus, the riots, the election: The unforgettable 2020

Former Gov. Ed Schafer, who cited his own tenure during the 1997 Red River Valley flood as a vetting in crisis management, said an overload of new and changing information about COVID-19 and public behavior may have left a data-driven operator such as Burgum unclear on the right move. "Data can always paralyze you," Schafer said.

In the rising din of the general election, Schafer noted that he thinks Burgum didn't hear the guidance of doctors and his medical advisers loudly enough. And whether the mask mandate has been a difference-maker or not, for Schafer, that call needed to be more gut than calculation.

"That’s one of the things that you learn when you're sitting in the governor's chair," Schafer said. "Sometimes, you have to make decisions based on your heart."

This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between. Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.