By A.J. Etherington
The Courier 

Gianforte Lifts Statewide Mask Mandate

County Reports 11th Local Death, Encourages Voluntary Mask Use

 

February 17, 2021



Montana Governor Greg Gianforte issued an executive order on Feb. 12 allowing the statewide mask mandate to expire following his signing of a law protecting businesses from COVID-related liabilities. The news was not a surprise. Gianforte had said he intended to lift the mandate once businesses were shielded from liability by the Montana state legislature and a significant number of vulnerable residents had been vaccinated.

“Since January 5th, I have provided a clear, consistent path to rescinding the mask mandate,” Governor Gianforte said. “First, we need to start getting the vaccine to our most vulnerable. Second, we need to protect businesses, nonprofits, places of worship, and health care providers from lawsuits if they make a good faith effort to protect individuals from the spread of coronavirus and follow clear public health guidelines. We have met both criteria, and the statewide mandate expires today.”

On February 10, Governor Gianforte signed S.B. 65 into law which provides a liability shield to businesses, nonprofits, and others who protect their workers, their customers, and their clients from the spread of COVID-19. So, despite lifting the mandate for mask wearing, the law still requires businesses to comply with best practices for preventing the spread of COVID-19 to be shielded from liability, in other words, to require masks, social distancing, symptom screenings and other practices.


The order does not prevent local health authorities from implementing their own restrictions—to include mask mandates. Valley County Health Department Director, Lynn Miller, told the Courier she was disappointed in the governor’s decision and highlighted the fact that lifting the mandate goes against public health opinion.

Miller also pointed out that the mask mandate reversal accompanies the tragic news that another Valley County Resident—a man in his 50s—died as a result of contracting the virus. That brings the county’s total number of deceased from the disease to 11.

“Nothing has changed with this virus from Thursday to today,” she said, and she went on to say that it was too bad the mandate was lifted so quickly before a sizable portion of the state was vaccinated. Miller said, “I believe it’s premature.”

She highlighted concerns with the move, but also pointed to the slow vaccination process in the county. What was supposed to be a small win in the form of 200 doses of the vaccine on Feb. 10 was set back by the cold weather and bad road conditions which delayed the county’s next shipment of COVID-19 vaccines and cancelled the Feb. 17 vaccination clinic at St. Raphael’s Parish Center.


Miller hopes businesses and individuals will continue to do the right thing and require masks at area establishments and in workplaces. She empathizes with a desire to move back to normal and hopes that with proper vaccination, the use of masks and social distancing and the continued contact tracing, the state will put the pandemic behind them in the best possible way.

“I really do believe we’ll put this behind us,” said Miller, discussing her hope that masks and other restrictions would end soon. “But just not today.”

In response to questions from the public about the county’s future moves now that Gianforte has placed the responsibility of future mask mandates in the hands of local governments, the Valley County Commissioners issued a joint statement saying, “The new directive recommends and encourages Montanans to wear masks and practice CDC guidelines for hand washing and social distancing, rather than requiring them to do so.

“We are following the Governor’s directive by continuing to request and encourage visitors and patrons in our facilities to wear masks, wash hands and practice social distancing.

At the Glasgow Airport and on Valley County Transit buses, per Federal mandates, masks must be worn.

“We encourage everyone in Valley County to continue following these protocols to keep our children in school, keep our businesses open and protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

Glasgow Superintendent Wade Sundby said in a letter that Glasgow Schools will continue their mask policy on campuses.

“The Glasgow School District will continue to enforce the mask mandate in our schools. The rationale behind this is we want to continue to protect our students and staff,” wrote Sundby. “We have been able to keep our staff and students in the building throughout this time by making mask-wearing one of the many small steps to ensure the safety of our students and staff is at the forefront.”


Sundby pointed out that the district’s decision to require masks on campus was made before then-Governor Steve Bullock’s mask mandate was even implemented, and that continuing the rule reflected that public conversation at the time. He then wrote, “Our staff, students, and community members have been wonderful in supporting us in our current situation and I thank you for your support.”

The Montana Nurses Association was quick to rebuke the governor’s decision saying it was contradictory to the facts on the ground, and they pointed out that 273 Montanans a day were being infected by the disease and that new variants were being discovered daily. Concerns surrounding those new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 even sparked the CDC to amend guidance and encourage Americans to wear two masks instead of one and to ensure a proper fit for best protection.

The MNA also pointed out that vaccination rates are not nearly high enough to prevent further spread of the disease among vulnerable populations.

“Tens of thousands of Montanans will be waiting for weeks and months to be vaccinated. Nevertheless, Gov. Gianforte takes this action that runs counter to what our national and state medical and scientific experts are saying—a move that puts the communities of our state at greater risk,” said the MNA in a statement. “Until vaccination is widespread, the governor’s decision to ignore the medical science poses a threat to all Montanans. Masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene is the ONLY other way to combat this pandemic.”

The association drew on the first-hand experiences of their members working around the clock treating patients statewide to say, “As professional nurses working, day and night, 24/7, in hospitals and other facilities where COVID-19 patients are being treated, we know the essential protections that masks can provide. That’s why doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals in Montana, including MNA, have urged repeatedly that people wear masks to protect themselves and others.”

As of Feb. 16, the state has administered 184,483 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines with 53,482 residents being fully immunized against the virus. In Valley County, 1,090 doses have been distributed and 211 people were fully immunized.

Cases continue to rise though. The state was rapidly approaching 100,000 total cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March of 2020. Across the state, reports showed that 2,666 cases were still active, and 1,331 people have died in the state as a result of contracting the disease.

 

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