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Governor signs liability shield, intends to lift mask rule

by IRIS SAMUELS Associated Press/Report for America
| February 11, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA (AP) — Saying he will lift a statewide mask requirement later this week, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill Wednesday intended to protect businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Gianforte said the new law will allow businesses to safely open during the pandemic. He also said enough vulnerable Montana residents have received COVID-19 vaccinations to allow the lifting Friday of the mask mandate put in place in July by his Democratic predecessor Steve Bullock.

Still, Gianforte said he would continue to wear a mask for the time being and encouraged others to do so. Local jurisdictions will still be permitted to implement mask mandates after the statewide rule is lifted.

There will be no immediate change in Whitefish, as the City Council in early January passed a mask ordinance that will take effect immediately when Gianforte repeals the statewide directive. The ordinance will require people 5 and older to wear face coverings in Whitefish bars, restaurants, shops and other indoor spaces that are open to the public, and at public gatherings where 6-foot social distancing isn't maintained. The ordinance will automatically expire after 90 days unless the council chooses to repeal it sooner.

As of Wednesday, over 41,000 Montana residents — representing just under 4% of the state population — had received both doses of the vaccine. The state is still in the midst of the second phase of vaccinations — with doses available only to people 70 or older, those with severe underlying medical conditions and people of color who are at greater risk if they contract the virus.

Gianforte's announcement came as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned against lifting broad mask requirements. Thirty-six states have such a requirement, according to a tally by the American Association of Retired Persons.

"Research has demonstrated that COVID-19 infections and deaths have decreased when policies that require everyone to wear a mask have been implemented. So with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths still very high, now is not the time to roll back mask requirements," Walensky said during a White House news conference.

In lifting the mandate, Gianforte will make good on a promise he made the day after taking office in early January.

Several other states have ended mask mandates, including Iowa, where the governor lifted the requirement last week despite advice to the contrary from the White House COVID Response Team.

Gianforte said his decision was also compelled by the downward trend in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Montana. The state reported just over 100 coronavirus-related hospitalizations on Wednesday, down from a peak of over 500 in November.

State Rep. Kim Abbott and Sen. Jill Cohenour, the Democratic minority leaders in the Montana Legislature, swiftly denounced Gianforte's decision.

"Despite touting his commitment to vaccinating Montana’s most vulnerable before lifting his mask mandate, Gov. Gianforte is now going back on his word and endangering the health and safety of those he has a duty to protect," Abbott and Cohenour said in a joint statement. "By passing the buck on public health, Gov. Gianforte is putting Montana businesses and workers in an impossible position and undercutting our economic recovery. Montanans deserve better."

Under the liability protection measure, businesses and health care providers, including assisted living facilities, could not be sued by individuals exposed to the coronavirus on their premises, except in cases of "gross negligence" or when they intentionally spread the virus. Business owners would not be required to uphold federal or state mask requirements or temperature-check rules if they remain in place.

The bill was advanced by the Republican-dominated Legislature in votes that largely split along party lines. Democrats said the law will give businesses immunity even if they knowingly put their customers and employees in danger of contracting the virus.

Twenty other states are considering protections against liability claims involving businesses, health care providers and educational institutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Montana, bill sponsor Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. said the law will prevent legal action against "people who are making good-faith efforts to comply with local health guidance."

However, opponents have said Montana businesses have not been the subject of what Fitzpatrick called frivolous lawsuits.

A lawsuit filed last week against an assisted living facility in Missoula alleges negligence and mistreatment of elders resulting in an outbreak of COVID-19 that led to the deaths of at least 26 residents, including the mother of the two sisters filing the suit. At least one other lawsuit has targeted assisted living and long-term care facilities in Montana where residents died following outbreaks.

Just over a third of the state's 1,320 confirmed virus-related deaths have been associated with such facilities, according to figures from the state's public heath department.

Daily Inter Lake reporter Chad Sokol contributed to this report.