Gov. Steve Bullock issued a mandate effective immediately ordering most Montanans to wear masks while inside public spaces and at large outdoor gatherings when social distancing isn’t possible. The call to mask up comes as the state exceeded 1,000 active cases of COVID-19.
The mandate applies to counties with four or more cases, meaning the order will affect two dozen counties, per Montana's coronavirus case-count Wednesday morning.
Masks are required for those age five and older inside businesses and at outdoor gatherings of 50 or more people when social distancing isn’t possible or being observed. Businesses are also required to provide masks to workers and are encouraged to use state grants to cover costs.
Gov. Steve Bullock said it will be up to business owners to enforce the mandate.
"No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. It’s that simple,” he said.
Businesses can call upon public health officials or local police if an unmasked customer refuses to leave, although Bullock says fines will be issued only in “egregious” cases. He says for now, the mandate won’t apply to schools.
Mask mandates have been a contentious topic throughout the state as tribes, counties and cities have either implemented mandates or considered them. The Whitefish City Council listened to over an hour of heated testimony Tuesday before voting to implement a public mask order. Gallatin County Commissioners had to postpone a meeting after those hoping to provide public comments refused to social distance.
Bullock acknowledged the mask issue has become politicized as a freedom of choice issue by opponents.
"An individual might think that they have a constitutional right to get sick if they so choose, but they don’t have a constitutional right to get other people sick."
He also cited mounting evidence released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, adding he hopes the mask requirement will preclude the need to issue more business closures.
Half of states across the country now have some form of a mask mandate. Montana’s neighboring states recommend masks, but don’t require them.
Bullock also announced that the state’s contractor for community snapshot testing, Quest Diagnostics, won’t be able to take in new tests for two to three weeks.
"When it takes a week to 10 days or more to provide us results back on our tests, it really is of more limited value to Montanans."
The state health department entered into a contract with Quest in May that secured testing services for up to $6.1 million . That contract did not list a specific timeline for testing turnaround. Bullock says the state is currently seeking both in-state and out-of-state options to meet non-symptomatic testing needs.
"And it’s uncertain over the next few weeks whether we'll be able to stand up all the mass community snapshot testing events that we’ve encouraged and planned for.”
More than two-dozen weekly and scheduled events may be in jeopardy; previous events have helped identify asymptomatic cases and beefed up state testing rates.
Bullock says the state lab is able to keep up with demand for testing people showing symptoms and contacts of confirmed cases. Bullock adds the state is doing well in regards to overall testing levels. He says from mid-June to mid-July, over 55,000 symptomatic and non-symptomatic tests were performed.
Jim Murphy with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services says the state lab’s capacity has grown from about 300 tests per day to about 1,200 per day due to technology and procedural improvements. He says the lab is able to return results within one to three days.
"We’re probably close to maxing-out those improvements, but new equipment comes along. Adding additional staff is also a possibility from time to time. However, space becomes a constraint too."
Bullock explained that testing wasn’t the only issue the state is facing. Many k-12 public schools have voiced concern about the $41 millon of federal aid relief funding they have received not being enough to cover the costs they are facing as they plan to reopen their doors in the fall.
"Approximately $75 million will be distributed to Montana’s k-12 schools based off the fiscal year 2021.”
Bullock says those dollars will come from federal relief funding the state received. It will help schools pay for everything from increasing transportation costs to hiring additional staff. Bullock says private schools will receive funding as well, though he did not say how much that may be. The state is also currently in the process of buying personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer that will be sent to districts.