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Change In Government Brings Changes In Montana's Mask Mandates

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte stands in the state Capitol building flanked by tribal, state and the American flags.
James Bradley
UM Legislative News Service
Gov. Greg Gianforte releases his plans for the state’s response to COVID-19 at a press conference January 5, 2021. He said he will rescind the statewide mask mandate, but only after certain criteria are met.

On his second day in office, Gov. Greg Gianforte pledged to lift Montana’s statewide mask mandate enacted by his predecessor to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Now local areas are preparing face-covering ordinances of their own.

At a press conference Tuesday, Gianforte said addressing COVID-19 was his top priority as governor, and that he would be issuing new guidance to help the state recover.

"I fully intend to rescind the existing statewide mask mandate," he said.

Gianforte said the repeal would come only after the vaccine is available to people over 70 years old and to Montanans with underlying health conditions. He also said there will first need to be legislation in place protecting businesses, churches, nonprofits and schools issuing safety measures of their own.

The governor said he hopes that will happen in weeks, not months, and said local authorities have discretion to make masking decisions in their own jurisdictions.

Cities and counties have already begun updating and instituting their own policies. Whitefish City Council on Monday evening unanimously passed a new mask ordinance that will go in effect when Gianforte rescinds the statewide mandate.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld explained.

"Recognizing that Gov. Gianforte has indicated his intention to lift Gov. Bullock’s masking directive, we felt as a council — and we are the policy-setting arm of Whitefish government — that we should hold a public hearing to consider the continuity of COVID-19 precautions in the form of requiring the use of face coverings," he said.

Whitefish wasn’t alone. Lewis and Clark County and Butte-Silver Bow both issued new ordinances in December.

At a health board meeting last month, Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Drenda Niemann said statewide safety measures have worked and helped slow the spread of the disease. But given the change in administration, "At this point, it really comes back down to the local level," she said.

Counties with varying levels of active coronavirus cases have enacted local mask requirements, including Missoula, Gallatin and Park.

Missoula County updated their mandate in October, and Gallatin County’s, issued over the summer, remains in effect. Park County’s mandate is also still in effect, but county officials said it may require an update.

Big Horn County will deliberate on how to respond to a statewide repeal at a public health board meeting on Friday. Other counties are likely to follow suit, and some tribal governments have also put local measures in place.

Some of the state’s most populous counties, including Yellowstone and Flathead, currently have no local mask ordinances on the books.

Thirty-seven other states have enacted similar statewide measures. Only one other state — Mississippi — has repealed a statewide mask ordinance.

For now, the statewide mask mandate remains in effect.

Gianforte says while in office, he’ll wear a mask.

Nick Mott is an reporter who also works on the Threshold podcast.