Montana Public Radio

Montana Lawmakers Split Over Pandemic Precautions As 2021 Legislature Convenes

Jan 4, 2021

Montana’s 67th Legislature convened Monday in the Capitol building in Helena where lawmakers remain split on how best to meet amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Automated temperature check stations sat at the front and back entrances to the Capitol on the first day of the 2021 legislative session. It takes seconds to determine if someone has a fever. If a person steps in the front of the tablet without a mask on, the screen flashes red. 

However, temperature checks weren’t mandatory and the stations will sit at the Capitol entry points for the first two days of the 90 day session. Mask wearing was sparse as lawmakers arrived. Democrats wore them and Republicans were more often seen without them. Many Democrats tuned into the first day virtually while most Republicans were there in-person. 

Republican lawmakers rejected proposed rules to require adherence to public health guidelines. They instead created a panel of party leaders, majority Republican, to potentially respond to COVID-19 issues. 

"The difference between the Republican and the Democrat stance on this is simple: It’s a choice of the individual instead of something that's being told for you to do," says Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth. 

Democratic Sen. Jill Cohenour says the panel isn't enough to mitigate the risks of COVID-19. 

"What is in the rules currently is not going to be enough for us to protect ourselves, for the public to fully participate in the Legislature."

Legislators raise their hands to be sworn in to the Montana House of Representatives January 4, 2021.
Credit Austin Amestoy / UM Legislative News Service

Before the session began, public health officials urged that the session be held all remotely or postponed.

Susan Fox, director of the nonpartisan Legislative Services Division, announced last week that legislative staff will work remotely for the first two weeks of the session instead of in committee rooms. Fox said in an email it was a workplace safety decision. 

Lawmakers weren’t the only ones at odds over COVID-19 precautions. 

Opposing protests popped up on the north and south lawns of the Capitol, with one group pleading lawmakers to wear masks, and another denouncing statewide health mandates.