Governor Gianforte to leave statewide mask mandate in place until vaccine roll out expands, liability protections are in place

Posted at 2:07 PM, Jan 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-05 20:14:00-05

HELENA — In his first action to shape Montana’s response to COVID-19, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced plans to focus on getting vaccines to vulnerable populations and to repeal the state’s mask mandate – but not immediately.

Gianforte held his first news conference as governor Tuesday. In it, he said his new administration would shift the state’s priorities in responding to COVID and that he plans to revise, replace or remove a number of the directives put in place by former Gov. Steve Bullock.

“Our goal is to make these new directives and guidance very clear,” said Gianforte. “They will be practical, and take into account that while we are in the middle of a public health crisis, we are also in the middle of an economic crisis.”

Gianforte said he is working with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to revise the state vaccination plan. The biggest change will be making vaccines available to all Montanans 70 years of age or older, as well as to those between the ages of 16 and 69 who have underlying health conditions that put them at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19.

Gianforte estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people are in that group. He said the state will be partnering with local health departments, hospitals and other health care providers to ensure they can get vaccines.

“This will not be simple,” he said. “There will be challenges, but we are committed to prioritize protecting the most vulnerable in our communities next.”

Gianforte also said he plans to remove the statewide mask mandate, but only after more of the vulnerable population gets access to the vaccine and the Montana Legislature approves a bill to protect businesses, schools, religious groups, nonprofits and others from lawsuits if they make a “good-faith effort” to protect people from COVID.

Gianforte said there’s not yet a specific timetable for when the mask mandate could be lifted, but that he hopes it will be in “weeks, not months.”

“To combat the virus, I believe providing incentives and promoting personal responsibility are more effective than imposing impractical mandates,” he said.

Gianforte again said Tuesday that he will continue to wear a mask and encourage Montanans to do the same.

Even after Gianforte removes the state mandate, several Montana counties – like Lewis and Clark, Missoula and Gallatin – have implemented their own mask requirements through local health boards or health officers’ orders. Asked about that Tuesday, Gianforte said state law currently gives counties broad discretion and that he felt the best decisions are often made at the local level.

Gianforte didn’t release any immediate changes on the state restrictions that limit operating hours and capacity at businesses like bars, restaurants and casinos. However, he said to expect an announcement on that in the coming days.

Gianforte also said Tuesday that changes will be coming to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, including adding data on the number of vaccines administered and available in Montana.

So far, leaders say about 23,000 Montanans have received their first dose of the vaccine. Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, executive director of the governor’s COVID-19 task force, said Montana is in the top ten of U.S. states by vaccination rate.

“I think Montana’s doing well,” he said. “I’d certainly like to be at 100%, but number 8 in the nation isn’t bad in terms of getting shots in the arms.”

Gianforte said the state has received 36,000 initial vaccine doses so far, and that another 41,000 will be arriving in the coming weeks.

This story has been updated. Original post available below:

Governor Greg Gianforte has announced he is revising vaccine distribution plans to target the most vulnerable populations.

At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Gianforte said during his first news conference since being sworn into office that he does plan to repeal the statewide mask mandate, but the change will not happen immediately.

Any changes will happen once clear and practical guidelines are in place and he has legislation on his desk that protects businesses, schools non-profits and places of worship who are following those guidelines from lawsuits and vaccine distribution have widely been expanded to vulnerable populations.

“I choose to wear a mask and encourage others to do the same,” Gov. Gianforte said.

The governor said that he wants to see additional COVID-19 vaccinations and is looking to move away from directives to incentives.

Vaccination plans for Montana are being revised by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services and will take effect immediately.

Under Gov. Gianforte’s plan, the vaccine distribution plan is to be expanded to cover all Montanans who are 70 years of age or older.

Additionally, COVID-19 vaccines will be provided to residents between the ages of 16 and 69 who have specific underlying health conditions.

Gov. Gianforte says that Montana has received 36,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines and additional 41,000 first doses are expected.

The governor also noted that 23,000 Montanans have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday.