Montana Public Radio

Montana Gubernatorial Candidates On How They'd Respond To COVID-19

Apr 14, 2020

Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio sent a list of four questions to candidates in the gubernatorial primary election, asking how they believe the state’s top executive should approach the COVID-19 pandemic.

State governors are overseeing much of their state’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock is under heightened attention as he uses his emergency authority to order many Montanans to stay at home, close K-12 public schools and prohibit landlords from evicting tenants, among other directives.

Later this year Montana will elect a new governor as Bullock terms out and seeks a run for U.S. Senate. Whoever is elected to replace Bullock will inherit Montana’s recovery effort as well as a possible second wave of illnesses caused by the virus.

Only two candidates, Libertarian Lyman Bishop and Green Party Candidate Robert Barb didn’t respond to our questions.

The candidates' responses below are unedited and appear in full.

Question 1: If you were governor, would you have called a stay-at-home order for Montana residents and do you agree with the timing and scope of the order issued by Governor Steve Bullock?

Republican Tim Fox: I support the governor’s quick and decisive action. I do not agree with every decision he has made during this crisis, but now is not the time to armchair quarterback. We must stay focused and work together to address the immediate challenge, and when the dust settles, craft proactive solutions to ensure we are prepared as best as possible for future crises like this.

Republican Greg Gianforte: Leaders across the country – from President Trump to governors to county commissioners and mayors – have had to make difficult decisions to keep their communities safe and healthy in the face of COVID-19. A chief role of government is to protect its citizens. It’s why I’ve been working with the president and lawmakers in both parties to defeat this invisible enemy and provide much needed relief to workers, families, and small businesses.

The president’s Coronavirus Task Force, which includes Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, continues to provide guidance to curb the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. I believe it’s important to rely on their experience and expertise as we make policy decisions at the federal, state, and local levels.

Republican Al Olszewski: Yes. One month ago, Montana was declared to be in a State of Emergency. Although no cases were identified in our state at the time, the limited information available indicated that the Coronavirus is a deadly infectious disease with no cure. The mathematical modeling indicated that up to 20,000 Montanans of all ages could die if infected. There is no cure or vaccine for Coronavirus. Therefore, the only effective tool the state of Montana has to slow down this disease and save Montana lives is the separation of our people. Careful analysis of Montana’s coronavirus total and daily case numbers indicate that the timing and scope of the order is effective to date. Montana is one of the few states to have “flattened the curve” of infected coronavirus patients to date.

Democrat Mike Cooney: The health and safety of Montanans has been Governor Bullock’s and my top priority during the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 in Montana and across the country. The decision to issue a stay-at-home order was made in consultation with public health experts, health care providers, and emergency management professionals. This measure was necessary to stay in front of the growing pandemic and to slow the growth of infections. The order provided for essential services and businesses to remain operational and open, and allowed for Montanans to leave their homes for essential activities, including getting outside and enjoying our public lands.

Even before issuing the stay-at-home order Governor Bullock and I took steps to ease the hardships COVID-19 was beginning to present Montana citizens and communities including: eligibility for uninsured Montanans to receive coverage for testing, streamlining unemployment benefits for workers laid off due to COVID-19, making available emergency loans for small businesses, extending Montana tax filing deadlines, and increasing access to healthcare in rural communities. Let me be clear: these are incredibly difficult decisions to make. But it is up to us as leaders to make the tough decisions and do what’s right for constituents.

We all need to do our part to flatten the curve in Montana and right now that means continuing to stay at home, practicing social distancing, and supporting our friends, families and neighbors.

Democrat Whitney Williams: Absolutely, the health, wellbeing and safety of Montanans are my top priorities. Just as Governor Bullock did, I would’ve followed the expertise and counsel of public health officials and quickly taken action. Public health experts study and watch these types of outbreaks all the time and recognized a novel coronavirus, requiring unprecedented action. I have worked in developing countries throughout my career including extensive work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congolese are on their way to beating Ebola right now, and we can do the same with coronavirus if we pay attention to one of the biggest lessons. Beating Ebola means beating a general distrust of science, institutions, and expertise — we must do the same to beat coronavirus in the United States. The governor’s quick and decisive action is working and Montanans are doing their part; together we are saving lives.

Question 2: The current governor has used his emergency powers often amid the pandemic. Those actions include; ordering the closure of dine-in restaurants and bars, ordering public school closures, requiring all travelers coming into Montana to self-quarantine for 14 days, sending the Montana National Guard to screen people coming into the state, prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants or issuing penalties due to late payment of rent during time of stay-at-home-order. Are there any of these actions, or others, you, as governor would not have taken? Please explain your reasoning.

Republican Tim Fox: Above all, my objective as governor will be to uphold the rule of law, and promote the health, safety and well-being of all Montanans. When this crisis concludes, it will be important to review what Montana’s leadership did right and what we could have done better. As attorney general, I am pleased with my team's quick and decisive action and communication to ensure public safety. This analysis will be beneficial for the next administration managing future crisis situations. It is critical Montana's next governor provides strong leadership with civility and a steady temperament.

Republican Greg Gianforte: Our top priority must be to protect people’s safety, health, and wellbeing, including their financial security. Governors throughout the country have determined what is best for their state based on the data and public health guidance they have. After the threat of COVID-19 passes, we owe it to the people we serve to review steps taken during this pandemic so that we can adjust our strategies accordingly and better prepare for future emergencies when they arise.

Republican Al Olszewski: I consider Religious worship essential and would have allowed Church worship with appropriate social distancing and facemasks to continue. We cannot stop Coronavirus. We can only slow the spread of Coronavirus. The primary mission is to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus so that Montana hospitals are not overwhelmed by a Tsunami wave of critically ill patients. This allows all Montanans who are critically ill to have every medical service available to them in their time of dire need. As long as we do not see a cluster of infections from church worship, I would keep churches open.

Democrat Mike Cooney: Governor Bullock first declared a State of Emergency to exist in Montana even before there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. We also set up the COVID-19 Incident Command Task Force before there were any cases as well to help with preparations. This early declaration allowed the Governor to direct a coordinated response to the outbreak to protect the health and economic safety of Montana residents. Every aspect of Governor Bullock’s response has prioritized both the long-term public and economic health of Montana and as Lt. Governor I have encouraged and supported all of these actions.

For example, as former three-term Secretary of State of Montana, I highly encouraged and advised Governor Bullock’s directive to allow Montana counties to opt-in to an all-mail ballot election. It’s critical we do everything we can to ensure our democracy to proceed without threat to the health and safety of Montanans on election day.

Democrat Whitney Williams: I agree with all of the steps the governor has taken using his emergency powers to protect Montanans. Like him, I would listen to our public health officials and take decisive action to protect the health and safety of Montanans and to save lives. As the first candidate to call for mail-in ballots, I’m delighted that Governor Bullock issued the order allowing for counties to opt in to a vote by mail system. Protecting our democracy, while we protect our health, remains a top priority. Montanans vote in record numbers and we should do everything we can ensure voters can cast ballots safely, and that the health of election officials isn’t jeopardized.

Question 3: Are there additional actions you feel the governor should take now or should have taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus?

Republican Tim Fox: Flattening Montana's COVID-19 positive test results curve remains the state’s top priority. But we also need to develop a robust, statewide economic recovery plan and be ready to implement that plan when Montana opens back up for business. As the governor’s office has yet to share any information with me regarding his economic recovery plans, I do not know if we are moving in the right direction.

Republican Greg Gianforte: States throughout the country, including Montana, have taken steps to curb the spread of the virus and save lives. Governors and mayors have listened to the advice of public health officials and done what they believe is best for their communities. Once this public health crisis has passed, we should review what worked, what didn’t, and what we can do better.

Republican Al Olszewski: The governor should be preparing now to re-open the State for normal business and activities. Evidence based epidemiology indicates the time to start relaxing the current restrictions is 2 weeks following the peak of Montana’s daily case rate. Montana’s peak case rate was March 25. The daily case rate has steadily declined since. At this time a second Governor’s Task Force should be created whose mission is to re-open our state using our state’s data and trends involving the pandemic.

We must protect lives as well as our livelihoods. As a State we should be prepared to transition from “shelter-in-place for all” to “Active social distancing” using cloth facemasks for healthy individuals, continued isolation for sick and the elderly and quarantine for those sick with the virus.

With a careful eye on our state’s coronavirus daily case rates and with realistic social distancing using cloth facemasks, we need to re-open our small businesses, our barbers/ beauticians, and our restaurants. Open our churches to public worship. Allow hospitals to treat Montanans that have medical needs that are not considered “Life or Limb Threatening.”

Open our schools in phases. Start with returning our high school seniors using appropriate facemasks and distancing. Add additional grades in phases.

As long as we do not see a resurgence of Coronavirus cases in the local communities, I would continue to relax our restrictions in phases.

Democrat Mike Cooney: The outbreak of COVID-19 continues to be an ongoing and dynamic situation in Montana. I have personally spoken with elected officials, hospital administrators, community leaders and tribal leaders all across the state about how individual cities and towns are coordinating with the state and managing the spread of the virus.

We are constantly monitoring the situation. Just last week Governor Bullock extended the series of directives we issued in order to continue the stay at home order, school closures, on-premises dining and beverage operations, eviction and foreclosure suspensions and the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for travelers coming into Montana for non-work-related travel.

This is an unprecedented crisis in the state and we are adjusting our response day by day in order to best slow the outbreak, ease the burden on Montanans and provide opportunities for relief for those most impacted.

Democrat Whitney Williams: I would have put the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline on pause until the threat of the spread of the virus passed. It just doesn’t make sense to bring in workers from Canada and out of state, which puts Montanans and our rural health care facilities at risk — especially at a time when we’ve asked so many others to sacrifice for the good of our neighbors, such as asking our school kids to stay home, businesses to close and workers to stop going to work. As a small business owner myself, I understand how difficult this is on business owners, nonprofits and working folks affected by this pandemic. The grit and determination that it takes to succeed as a small business owner in Montana is immense — the spread of a pandemic only makes success harder to achieve. With an unprecedented shift in consumer behavior, businesses and nonprofits are struggling. The public is confused about which businesses are open and which ones are closed. So businesses need help letting Montanans know which businesses are open and which are closed. This is unprecedented, and helping provide more clarity would help Montanans and businesses as they struggle through this really tough time.

Question 4: If elected, you would inherit the state’s recovery efforts. This could include rebuilding an economy, which has seen tens of thousands of people unemployed, transitioning schools back to in-class instruction and incorporating what industries and governments have learned from the pandemic into the “new normal.” What would be your priorities and your vision leading Montana in the year following the COVID-19 pandemic?

Republican Tim Fox: My priority is helping my fellow Montanans recover from the damage caused by this crisis; whether economic or otherwise. Despite our current situation, I know our best days are still ahead of us. Montana is poised for economic success with the right leadership and the right strategies. As governor, I will lead efforts for a strong statewide recovery based on a plan my campaign has already outlined. Montana United: A Strategic Vision for the Future, is a comprehensive blueprint focusing on fifteen areas related to the quality of life in the last best place. Over five hundred Montanans participated in the creation of Montana United. I am the only gubernatorial candidate that has outlined policies, platforms, and expectations for Montana's future.

If given the honor of serving my fellow Montanans as their next governor, my Montana United vision will be the building blocks to recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. For more details on the policy proposals contained in our Montana United plan, please visit our website www.FoxforGovernor.com.

Republican Greg Gianforte: Times are tough, and people are struggling. I hear it every day as I talk to Montana workers, business owners, and leaders. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, too many Montanans find themselves out of a job and without a paycheck, and too many small business owners find themselves closing their doors and letting workers go. To protect the public health and save lives, states and communities have employed measures to reduce the spread of the virus, leaving many Americans wondering when our lives will return to normal. Where we are right now doesn’t have to be the new normal. Together and as we have when faced with other grave challenges, we will rebound and be stronger on the other side.

In Congress, I’ve worked with lawmakers in both parties to bring relief to Montana families, aid to keep Montana small businesses open and ready to take off again, and resources to our hospitals, health care centers, and providers on the front lines.

When this public health crisis ends, we will need to get our economy back on the right track. Hardworking Montanans will need good-paying jobs, and small business owners will look to how they can thrive again.

But we need to do better than we were before this outbreak when Montana was one of the top-ten states for lowest wages. My top priority as governor is to increase opportunities throughout Montana by creating opportunities for more good-paying jobs. As a businessman, it’s what I’ve done, it’s what I know how to do, and it’s what I’ll roll up my sleeves and do on day one.

Republican Al Olszewski: We need to do our best as a state to get Montanans back on the feet and back to work again. The next legislative session needs to pass tax relief to businesses and individuals. An example is granting tax credits for landlords who did not receive their rent payments and late fees. The state government will experience another fiscal crisis worse than the one in 2017. Our state agencies need to start scaling back on all non-essential services now. The state legislature should be prepared to open up the Coal Trust to cover the losses in tax revenue due to this pandemic. Montana state government should share in the hardships created by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Democrat Mike Cooney: It’s important for Montanans to know that all of the actions Governor Bullock and I have taken to respond to the outbreak of COVID-19 have prioritized the health and safety of Montanans. In order to have a healthy economy we must have a healthy population. The way we are managing this crisis now is intended to help prevent long-term consequences that could result in even more damage to our economy and our communities.

As Montana’s next governor I intend to ensure continuity in the state’s response efforts throughout all levels of state government so Montanans lives aren’t disrupted more than they already have been. We are in the process of identifying ways to bring together

the private and public sectors together from a cross-section of industries across the state and I am directly involved in and leading those efforts as Lt. Governor.

These efforts will continue for many months prior to the November election, and being directly involved means I will be ready to hit the ground running immediately as Governor to continue to lead Montana’s ongoing recovery efforts. That immediate work will begin by working with our Main Street businesses and the legislature to identify the most critical areas of our economy that are still struggling and investing in Montanans and communities to ensure they can continue to rebound.

Democrat Whitney Williams: I have helped communities all around the world rebuild after natural and manmade disasters, and would bring the same sense of urgency to rebuilding Montana’s economy. I would do what I have done throughout my career and bring community and business leaders, educators, public health officials and the best economic development minds together to forge a path forward for Montana. As we did with the current shutdown, which has been done gradually and in stages, we must be sure that we put this fire out all the way, and gradually reopen our society and economy in stages to ensure Montanans’ health and safety. That has to come first. As we look at other countries’ experiences in reopening society, we can learn lessons as we reopen ours. Safety first. And that will help us get our economy running again. I’d focus on these four areas:

1. CONTROL THE VIRUS — First, I’d make sure the virus is under control. You can’t have a strong economy if people are scared and afraid for their health and the health of their loved ones. They won’t go out, and they won’t spend money. I’m data driven. I’d do a deep-dive assessment of what worked well and what didn’t work well during the pandemic, so if there is a resurgence of the virus or another one, we have a game plan. In short, I’d make sure we are prepared. This virus has highlighted the healthcare disparities in society. We need to focus on those disparities as well to not only control the virus but to ensure the virus doesn’t come back while we minimize the disparities over the long term.

2. BUILD A STRONG RECOVERY TEAM — Second, I would assemble a broad recovery team, bringing together community, business and industry leaders, labor leaders, health-care, members of both political parties, economic experts and working Montanans to help reshape and restore our economy. I’d build off the federal government’s assistance to ensure that Montana’s families, businesses and towns get immediate help. Then I’d look at real structural issues. As we rebuild the economy, we should make sure the basics are in place, like broadband. We should assess what worked in a world grounded in technology as people worked from home, children learned online, business moved to online orders, doctors assessed their patients’ needs remotely, and everyday communication revolved around a phone or computer. It’s time to ask people who tele-worked from home, what worked and what didn’t, so we can build that portion of our economy going forward. Now more than ever, we have come to understand the urgent need for delivering telemedicine to rural communities and high quality broadband is key to this. And I’d take a close look at higher education and what Montana needs going forward. Students know they can learn from anywhere —what will that mean for the Montana University System? We need to continue lifelong learning in training and apprenticeship programs. Disruptions like this provide a real opportunity to rebuild our economy for today and tomorrow. We need to capitalize on the innovation demonstrated by Montana businesses to adapt and respond with new products. I’d ask the business community what their needs are, and I’d invest in training those workers.

3. BRING IN OUTSIDE EXPERTS & SEIZE THE FUTURE — Third, I’d bring in expert help from outside the state to help us prepare for the economy of the future, building on the contacts I have made across my career with Fortune 500 companies. As a businessperson, I have always worked to bring together experts from the public, private and philanthropic worlds to tackle and overcome tough issues, create jobs and ensure stronger communities and economies. I’ll use my leadership to tap outside resources to work alongside Montanans, and make Montana stronger economically.

4. PROTECT OUR GREATEST ASSET: MONTANA — Even during a crisis, Montanans understand that their economic, physical and emotional stability stems from this land and water that we treasure and call home. Our wide open spaces and pristine rivers will help drive our recovery economically and emotionally. These natural assets are not only our trust, they are our cash register, driving our economy. It is our responsibility to pass them on to the next generation. People come to Montana from all over the world to hunt and hike in our mountains and prairies, and fish and float on our blue-ribbon rivers and streams. People bring their businesses here to enjoy our incredible quality of life in Montana. This is our foundation, and we must defend and protect it — now and always.