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Democrats Walk Out After Republicans Forego Masks

Men sit around a u-shaped table not wearing masks.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Republican members of Montana's Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee conduct a meeting July 16, 2020 after Democratic members left prematurely in protest. The masked individual is a legislative staffer.

Democratic members of a Montana legislative committee prematurely left a meeting today in what one lawmaker is calling a protest of Republicans not wearing face masks at the Capitol.

Shortly after a scheduled break, Democratic Sen. Janet Ellis of Helena called for a pause in Thursday’s Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee meeting. The committee vice chair issued an ultimatum on behalf of Democratic members, who were all attending via Zoom.

“My caucus is willing to leave this meeting so that no actions can be taken for the rest of the meeting today unless members of the committee are willing to wear face masks," Ellis said.

The request followed Gov. Steve Bullock’s Wednesday directive requiring residents of counties with four or more COVID-19 cases to wear masks inside public spaces, including government offices. The directive provides an exception for people with medical conditions making it unsafe to wear masks.

Republican lawmakers attending Thursday’s energy committee meeting at the Capitol weren’t wearing them. Chair and Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell said he wouldn’t ask them to.

“If you folks would like to not join us for the remainder that’s entirely your call, but I’m not going to require the folks that think they have an exemption to wear a mask," Skees said.

At that point, Democratic committee members exited the meeting, which broke the quorum. The meeting continued but no action was taken.

It’s unclear whether any Republican committee members met medical exemption requirements.

In an interview, Ellis said she was planning to attend the meeting in-person before hearing that Republican colleagues weren’t planning to wear masks in what she called a violation of Bullock’s directive.

"It may be your choice what you do for yourself but as soon as you do something that will impact others, and could influence their health, you shouldn’t be allowed to do that," Ellis said.

Skees didn’t return a request for comment.

Legislative Services Division Director Susan Fox says Capitol common areas and hallways would fall under Bullock’s directive as public areas, but the status of committee meeting rooms, which are sometimes closed to the public and sometimes open, is unclear.

“We’re going to work on clarifying some of this for legislative meetings," Fox said.

Thursday’s meeting featured at least one public comment period with a person speaking in the meeting room.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America statehouse reporter.