Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Gianforte sets guidelines for lifting mask mandate

by By AMY BETH HANSON Associated Press
| January 5, 2021 2:00 PM

Montana's governor said he will lift the statewide mask mandate put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after more vulnerable people receive vaccines and the Legislature sends him a bill to protect businesses, schools, churches and nonprofits from lawsuits if they follow public health guidelines.

Gov. Greg Gianforte did not say how many or what percentage of the most vulnerable would have to be vaccinated to trigger the lifting of the mask mandate put in place by former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

"I think it's encouraging that we still have a mask mandate today," said Matt Kelley, Gallatin County's public health officer, who has had people protest health orders outside his house. "I think it demonstrates the governor's recognition of the importance of masks and the mask rule in suppressing disease as we work to distribute vaccines to protect our most vulnerable and prevent more deaths."

Gianforte, a Republican, said he expected changes in statewide health orders to come in "weeks, not months."

His office will be issuing new directives and guidance that "will be practical and will take into account that while we are in the middle of a public health crisis, we're also in the middle of an economic crisis."

Currently, businesses such as bars, casinos and restaurants are limited to 50% capacity and must close by 10 p.m., drawing protests from business owners. "We'll have news within days on some of those business restrictions," Gianforte said.

County health departments will be allowed to continue their restrictions under the current state of emergency, Gianforte said. In Yellowstone County, a health officer order requires nearly all businesses to close by 10 p.m.

Montana reported another 834 cases of COVD-19 on Tuesday as the death toll passed 1,000. More than 83,000 Montanans have tested positive for COVID-19. The case numbers are believed to be far higher because not everyone has been tested, and studies have shown people can be infected without having symptoms.

The bump in cases and an increase of about 30 deaths reported Tuesday is due, in part, to data entry catch-up by counties, said Jon Ebelt, spokesperson for the state health department.

"We are not out of the woods yet," Gianforte said. "We continue to see deaths. We continue to see infections. That's why it's imperative that we continue the rollout of this vaccine and focus on the most vulnerable in our communities."

Through Monday, about 23,000 Montanans have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Gianforte said. The state has received 36,000 first doses and expects another 41,000 doses in the coming weeks, for a total of about 77,000 doses.

The vaccines will be prioritized for frontline health care workers, those in long-term care facilities, all Montanans over 70 years of age and those ages 16 to 69 with specific underlying health conditions. That totals about 250,000 people.

However, not everyone who is eligible for the vaccine has agreed to receive it, said Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, executive director of the governor's COVID-19 task force.

Following Gianforte's press conference, Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis issued a statement criticizing the governor for changing vaccination priorities.

"The threat to lift Montana's mask mandate coupled with the decision to delay vaccinations for educators and front-line workers undermines and delays efforts in nearly every Montana community to keep schools open and our economy moving forward," Curtis stated. "The math doesn't add up, the timeline is flawed, and the policy is misguided."

Gianforte has been encouraging mask wearing as a personal responsibility and said he plans to increase the availability of COVID-19 testing at no cost to residents.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some — especially older adults and people with health problems — it can cause more severe illness and death.