Montana Public Radio

Helena Businesses Say Lawmakers Are Flouting COVID Restrictions

Feb 9, 2021

Some Helena businesses are raising concerns about state legislators flouting public health guidance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lewis and Clark County health officer says she's received reports concerning lawmakers who are in town for the current legislative session.

Drenda Neimann, the county’s health officer, wrote a letter to legislative leaders this week. In it, she said businesses have reported that lawmakers are not wearing face coverings indoors and are disregarding requests to don masks per state directive and local rule.

Neimann asked leaders to “communicate clear expectations to the broader legislative body that both state and local rules are followed when patronizing business in this community.”

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, chair of the Legislature’s COVID-19 response panel, spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday to ask lawmakers to respect local public health orders. He also said the complaints didn’t seem "definitive."

Republican lawmakers, who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, declined to require legislators to wear masks or socially-distance in the Capitol building. Instead, they created a COVID-19 response panel to deal with virus-related issues.

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour said that she and House Minority Leader Kim Abbott have tried to push the response panel to put more rules in place for lawmakers.

“And what we’ve gotten is stonewalled and no ability to essentially work within that system," Cohenour said.

Sen. Ellsworth said that he spoke to Neimann Tuesday and that she would not give specifics on which lawmakers were the subjects of complaints. He said the health department needs to do more vetting.

“Because if there is a legislator that is not following local guidelines, then I would want to know so we could address it with that legislator," Ellsworth said.

Ellsworth, like many Republican lawmakers, does not wear a mask in the Capitol.

So far this session, three lawmakers — all Republican — have tested positive for COVID-19.