Gov. Greg Gianforte repealed Montana’s mask mandate Friday. Many Montana health officials say it’s too soon, and some are keeping local masking requirements.
"I've said all along, I believe in personal responsibility as opposed to government mandates," Gianforte said at a vaccine clinic in Kalispell on Friday.
Gianforte’s directive, which also did away with the state’s reopening plan, came as the CDC this week urged universal mask wearing across the country, and updated its guidelines to ensure masks have a snug fit, or are double-layered.
Gianforte has pledged to lift Montana’s mask mandate since January. To do so, he said the state needs to enact legislation that protects businesses from COVID-19 liability and start providing more vaccinations to the state’s elderly and vulnerable.
Gianforte made good on that first threshold on Wednesday by signing Senate Bill 65, which provides more protection from COVID-19-related litigation for businesses, churches, and nonprofits.
To date, about 4 percent of Montanans have been fully immunized.
"We’re taking, I think, common-sense steps to move back to more of a normal life as we feel safe," Gianforte said. "And I will just add that Montanans don’t like wearing masks."
He said the new guidelines allow for local areas to provide protections that reflect the needs of their communities.
Montana Public Radio reached out to all 56 counties in the state. As of Friday afternoon, at least eight counties and three tribes are holding on to local ordinances. Other localities are scrambling to adapt to the new directive, leaving a patchwork of regulations in place across the state.
Yellowstone, the state’s most populous county, lifted local masking and other health orders in January to preemptively align with Gianforte’s policies.
"It’s still important that we all do our part to prevent the spread of disease, which does include masking when we’re around other people, and distancing and sanitizing and those sorts of efforts," John Felton, Yellowstone County’s health officer said at a press conference last Monday.
But Missoula and Gallatin counties — the state’s second and third largest by population — have both instituted local ordinances.
Missoula County’s COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr said she knows everyone is tired of wearing masks, but that practice, along with social distancing and proper hygiene, is helping stem the spread of the disease.
Matt Kelley, health officer with Gallatin County, said the state’s new directive is concerning and confusing.
"I mean, we have thousands of vulnerable Montanans who can’t get a vaccine. And now in many parts of the state they’ll have to go to grocery stores and go to government buildings and have people not be in masks. I’m worried it puts Montanans at greater risk"
In Beaverhead County, public health director Sue Hansen said the area has no mask measures in place, but the health board is meeting next week to deliberate new protections.
"I’m afraid we’re going to go backwards again because we’re going to have all these cases with no public health mitigation in place."
Flathead County Health officials are also working out what comes next. The local board of health meets next Thursday. Health Officer Joe Russell said he would support a local mask policy prioritizing schools and health care facilities.
"People can vote with their feet. If they don’t want to frequent a business that doesn’t require mask use, they don’t have to. But we don’t want to end this school year like we did last school year with distance learning and children at home."
Melissa Moyer, public health director in Teton County, said the area has no local mandate in place, but the health board is discussing a public meeting on new measures.
"We’re feeling a little rushed in terms of the decision to lift the mask mandate. We have a significant elderly population in Teton County and we are still quite a ways from having them, what we would consider, adequately vaccinated."
Megan Spry, Sanitarian with the Central Montana Health District, which covers Judith Basin, Musselshell, Petroleum, Golden Valley, Fergus, and Wheatland counties, says cases are low enough in the region they’re comfortable without a mandate.
"Our stance for all six counties has been that we are sticking with the governor’s minimum unless we have reason to implement stricter. And at this point we don’t have reason to implement stricter."
Mandates continue on at least the Blackfeet, Rocky Boy's, and Fort Belknap reservations, according to releases from the tribes. State data show that Native Americans make up about seven percent of the population in Montana, but account for about 18 percent of coronavirus deaths.
Across the country, more than 35 states have mask mandates on the books. Two of the four states that have repealed mask mandates have put versions of them back in place.
Gov. Gianforte says he’ll continue to wear a mask, and encourages Montanans to do the same.
Find out where local mask mandates and other local COVID-19 health orders are in place.