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Montana 2021 Legislature

County Officials Say They Can’t Enforce Health Restrictions Under New Montana Law

A blue surgical mask sits in a pile of dead leaves in a back alley.
Nicky Ouellet
/
Yellowstone Public Radio

Republican Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed into law a policy that county officials say prevents them from enforcing emergency public health restrictions, like mask mandates.

The law prohibits local governments from making businesses follow mandates that prevent them from offering goods or services to a customer. It also curbs local governments’ authority to issue fines for not following health orders.

State Republican lawmakers in the recently-adjourned legislative session prioritized policies limiting the power of local health officials, arguing restrictions intended to slow the coronavirus’ spread place an undue burden on residents.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health decided against extending the county mask mandate and public gathering restrictions due to the new law. Health Officer Matt Kelley said it’s causing widespread confusion.

“It really makes it pretty impossible for local health officials to address the pandemic in a meaningful way through rules that affect businesses,” Kelley said.

Shortly after the policy became law, Health Officer Drenda Niemann announced Lewis and Clark County would no longer enforce its mask mandate, though she encouraged residents to continue wearing them indoors.

Niemann said businesses themselves can still require masks.

Gianforte also signed into law a separate policy preventing businesses and government agencies from denying people services or employment because of vaccination status. Hospital industry organizations oppose the law, saying it prevents them from maintaining a safe environment for vulnerable patients.

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