Mask mandates and other public health requirements for businesses to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Montana are no longer enforceable, after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed legislation substantially limiting the authority of local health boards.
The governor’s office Friday announced that House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, was among a slate of bills signed in recent days.
Businesses can still elect to require that customers wear masks in their facilities, but under the bill, local health requirements that they do so are no longer enforceable. HB 257 removes the ability of local governments and health officials to issue ordinances or resolutions that deny customers access to a business’s goods or services, or that require a business to do so.
That effectively voids any local mandates that involved business closures, capacity limits or requirements that customers wear masks or not be allowed on the premises.
It applies retroactively, but also includes an exception in the rule that Republicans said would still allow local health officials to do their jobs. Health officials have been less certain of that interpretation of the law.
Republicans, who largely supported the measure, argued it was a necessary response to what they saw as the overreach of local health officials who enacted regulations limiting businesses in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. To date, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed 1,592 Montanans and sickened more than 100,000 others.
"We all understand how the statewide shutdown last spring affected our business community," Hinkle said on the House floor in support of his bill earlier this session. "If that were not enough to put many businesses out of business, the lengthy continuance of ordinances from that point on served through a death by a thousand cuts, destroying the life of those that remain."
Democrats and public health officials, however, have warned that HB 257 and other legislation would curtail the ability of medical experts to effectively take actions that have been demonstrated to save lives. Lewis and Clark County announced Friday that its mask mandate for businesses and government buildings was no longer effective as a result.
The county's public health officer, Drenda Niemann, said Friday that she was still working with the county attorney for guidance and interpretation of the new law, along with other recent legislation affecting local health regulations. She said it was clear that they can no longer make businesses enforce health mandates, but would continue to strongly urge people to continue wearing masks in public places.
"If you just stop and think about the people that work in those public places, like a grocery store for example, the checkers are exposed to hundreds of people a day, and I still feel like it’s our responsibility as a community to protect people in those environments," Niemann said. "It’s to show that you care about others."
Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for Gianforte's office, responded to requests for comment with a copy of the governor's letter attached to his amendatory veto of an earlier version of the bill.
The letter states that the governor's amendments, approved during the final week of the legislative session, would "protect taxpayers from costly lawsuits and clarify that provisions of the bill do not restrict public health officials from enforcing all lawfully adopted regulations, directives and orders."
Gallatin County is also working through the ramifications of HB 257.
“It makes a situation that was already really complex and difficult to enforce those rules, really makes it impossible for any local health officials to address the pandemic in a meaningful way,” Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said during a press conference Friday.
The bill was just one of several pieces of legislation limiting local health officials that were introduced by Republicans during the legislative session that ended last week.
Gianforte previously signed House Bill 121 into law, which requires elected officials to approve of local health board and officer actions. And Senate Bill 108, which passed the Legislature during its final week, has yet to be acted on by the governor. It would allow for an initiative election where voters in a county could petition to repeal or amend a local health board's action.
A little more than a month after being sworn in as Montana’s first Republican governor in 16 years, Gianforte ended the statewide mask mandate that had been put into place by his predecessor, Democrat Steve Bullock. The executive order still allowed local governments to retain mask mandates.
Gianforte did so after signing into law a measure that shielded businesses from lawsuits related to transmission of the coronavirus.