HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Wednesday that he is making big changes to the state’s COVID-19 directives – including lifting statewide restrictions on some businesses’ operating hours and capacity.
Gianforte said during a news conference that his goals were to make the orders simpler and easier to implement, and to put a greater emphasis on personal responsibility.
“These new directives are clear; they are practical; they are common-sense,” he said.
Gianforte’s updated executive order will take effect Friday at 5 a.m. It removes the requirement that bars, restaurants, breweries and casinos operate at 50% capacity and close by 10 p.m. Former Gov. Steve Bullock put that rule into effect in November.
Gianforte said he saw the restrictions as “arbitrary.”
“We can reduce the burden on our small business owners while simultaneously protecting the health of Montana workers and customers,” he said. “These two are not mutually exclusive.”
However, this change will not override orders from local boards of health that have adopted their own capacity or hour restrictions. Several large counties, including Lewis and Clark and Cascade, passed local regulations in the last few months.
Gianforte’s new directive also removes a specific limit on the number of people who can gather. In November, Bullock had limited public gatherings to 25 people whenever social distancing wasn’t possible or wasn’t being observed.
The new order says public events should be “managed in a way that accommodates CDC social distancing guidelines.”
Gianforte said he has been consulting with health leaders, businesses and others for the past few weeks before deciding how to update the directives.
“We took the time to get this right,” he said.
Gianforte had previously announced plans to remove the state mask mandate, but said that will not occur until more people have been vaccinated and the state legislature adopts liability protections for businesses and other organizations.
Also during Wednesday’s news conference, Gianforte said about 42,000 Montanans have received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccines. He said large pharmacies like Walgreens expect to have vaccines to 97% of long-term care facilities in the state by the end of January.
“This is the path to the day when we can take off our mask, throw it in the trash and go on with our lives in a safe manner,” Gianforte said. “I know all of us want to get to that point, and I hope it comes soon.”