A couple weeks ago, I was driving on State Highway 210 and noticed that the speed limit had been increased from 55 mph to 60. I decided to do a Google search to determine why the change.
The 55-mph speed limit was established back in the 1970s because a study determined that such a speed limit would save about 4,000 lives per year nationwide. However, a recent MnDOT study showed that the vast majority of drivers were going faster than 55, that the average speed was more like 62. In fact, those that were going 55 miles per hour or slower were actually creating greater safety hazards by creating a pileup of cars behind them, leading drivers to risk driving into the lane of oncoming traffic to pass the slower cars.
In other words, in theory, the 55 mph speed limit made sense. But because no one obeyed the limit, in practice, it did not.
I think we have a similar thing going when it comes to the coronavirus in western Minnesota.
This week, Rep. Collin Peterson said he believed Gov. Tim Walz’s strict COVID-19 restrictions, including 50% capacity in bars and restaurants and the 250-person limit at entertainment venues and churches, are creating an undue hardship in his district, which includes the western third of Minnesota. While such restrictions are appropriate for metro areas such as Minneapolis or in midsized cities with outbreaks like St. Cloud, it does not make sense for his district.
The primary reason, Peterson said, is that North Dakota and South Dakota have fewer restrictions. Thus, if you live in Moorhead, East Grand Forks or Breckenridge, you are probably going to go across the border to spend money and not get hassled as much about wearing a mask or social distancing.
If Otter Tail County had an outbreak of COVID-19, it would be a different story. Frankly, if there were dozens of COVID-19 cases in Fergus Falls, I would hope our residents would avoid traveling to Fargo or Wahpeton, and do what we are supposed to do to avoid further spread.
But the fact is, Otter Tail County does not. According to the county public health site, there have been 159 confirmed cases here. Of those 159, two have died from the virus, and 145 are no longer contagious, meaning there are 14 active cases. Considering how large a county we live in, it’s likely there are only a handful in Fergus Falls. I would hope that those who have an active case are under self-quarantine.
There’s also the fact that many North Dakota residents work in Minnesota, and vice versa, and thus we are consistently intermingling.
I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists who is convinced mask wearing is a big hoax designed to financially benefit mask companies. But the fact is, there is no COVID-19 outbreak in our area. The only way there will be is if someone here travels to a COVID-19-affected area, picks up the virus, and then decides to be the most social person in Fergus Falls. It’s not going to blow in like smoke from a California wildfire.
Make no mistake, I believe coronavirus is real. In places where there are outbreaks, it’s deadly serious. I think those calling the disease a hoax and deliberately disregarding the precautions — or in the case of Donald Trump, telling people to disregard the precautions — are misguided.
But let’s also get serious about the need for precautions here. Even within Fergus Falls city limits, the population density is eight times less than Minneapolis. There are not enough cases to create a viable threat here. We are wearing masks and following precautions mostly because the government is telling us to, and because we will be ready if and when COVID-19 comes to Fergus Falls.
But like the 55-mph speed limit, if our neighbors to the west, whom we work, shop and eat with, aren’t following the same guidelines we are, what is the point of having them here?
Walz has to understand that there are really two states — the Twin Cities metro area, and everywhere else in Minnesota. There’s no reason why the coronavirus rules can’t vary based on geography.
In fact, a lot of things could.
Joel Myhre is a Fergus Falls resident.