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In The Montana Statehouse, COVID-19 Precautions Depend On The Room

Members of the Montana House Judiciary Committee sit around a U-shaped conference table. A few wear masks but most don't.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
At a House Judiciary Committee meeting at the Montana Capitol January 5, 2021 lawmakers wearing masks and those with bare faces sat next to each other. Some committee chairs are requiring participants to adhere to public health guidance, others aren't.

As the 67th Montana Legislature gets underway, lawmakers are establishing the various ways they’ll conduct business amid the public health threat of the coronavirus. The COVID-19 protocols in each committee room may look different.

The power of committee chairs is proving influential in how public health guidance is followed in bill hearings as the legislative session advances amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The heads of committees, appointed by the speaker of the house and senate president, have some discretion in how each committee operates.

In the first meeting of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, glass dividers separated the room between lawmakers who wore masks and those who chose not to.

Republican Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad is chair of the 24-member committee.

“Just tried to put together a room that was respectful of everyone, and created a separation for comfort level," he said.

Jones said attendees who are not lawmakers, like lobbyists, journalists or members of the public, will be required to wear masks in the committee room.

Across the hall in a House Judiciary Committee meeting, lawmakers wearing masks and those with bare faces sat next to each other, although their desks are spaced out to allow for social distancing.

Billings Republican Rep. Barry Usher, chair of the committee, said he won’t require masks for anyone.

"If they want to wear one, that’s fine," he said. "Social distancing, I’m going to ask members if they feel comfortable because, you know, if somebody’s already had it, they don’t have to worry about it. So I’m going to leave that up to the personal responsibility of everybody.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cases of reinfection with COVID-19 have been reported but remain rare. The federal agency also recommends mask wearing and social-distancing to combat the virus. Researchers who’ve studied possible reinfection encourage people who’ve already had COVID-19 to continue to take precautions.

Democratic leaders in the Montana statehouse continue to express concern over Republicans flouting public health guidelines. House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said during a news conference that she is recommending constituents don’t come to the building.

"We’ve suggested that the public participate in the safest way possible, and we believe that that’s through remote testimony," she said.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.