TOWNSEND — Shortly after Townsend Hardware owner JB Howick learned that Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide mask mandate would apply to Broadwater County, he posted on Facebook that the store would be complying with the directive and requiring customers to wear masks. He said the posts got an immediate reaction.
“Generally speaking, quite negative,” said Howick. “A great number of people are upset.”
Howick said, before the mandate took effect, many older customers and those with young families were wearing masks, while many others decided not to. On Thursday, he said he had to remind some customers to put one on, but most were willing to do it.
“We’ve only had a couple of negative responses,” he said. “People have been kind of testing the water – they’ll walk in without a mask, and when staff tells them that they need to please exit the store if they don’t have a mask, they’ll pull it out of their back pocket or they’ll step out to the car and get the mask and come back in.”
Bullock’s order, released Wednesday, requires people in designated counties to wear face coverings in businesses, government offices and other indoor spaces open to the public, as well as some large outdoor activities where social distancing isn’t possible.
The directive applies to counties that have four or more active cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday, Broadwater County had five – just over the threshold to be included.
While Howick is following the order, he says he’s not convinced a mask mandate is really needed in the county.
“I’m fairly skeptical overall; it seems like most of Montana’s reaction to this virus has been an overreaction,” he said. “I do not doubt the danger and potential harm the virus can cause, but we have only five cases in a county of 6,000. That doesn’t particularly seem like a threat.”
Bullock’s order also drew sharp criticism from Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson. He told MTN he believes requiring masks will undo the progress leaders have made in encouraging people to wear them voluntarily.
“My concern was that if we have a mask order, it’s actually going to be a step backwards, because it’s going to overly politicize the issue,” he said.
Swanson was one of several county attorneys and sheriffs who talked to the governor last week about the possibility of a mask mandate. He said many said they are already overextended, and that it would be difficult for them to enforce such an order.
Swanson said they asked for any directive to be clear and easily understandable, and that it not take effect immediately. He said he believes Bullock’s order didn’t take that input into account.
One of Swanson’s concerns is that people traveling from county to county may not have a clear idea of where the rules do or do not apply.
“Really the place where you’re going to see it is out-of-state tourists coming through,” he said. “They’re not going to know when they get to a particular community whether a mask is required there, unless they’re doing some kind of continual updates on their phone.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Bullock’s office told MTN Thursday that the number of active cases statewide had risen from 55 to more than 1,000 in the last month, and the governor’s action was necessary to protect vulnerable Montanans and support the health care system and businesses. They said Bullock did use the feedback from his meeting with the sheriffs and county attorneys when drafting the mask order – particularly a section on how it should be enforced.
“Local public health agencies and law enforcement should focus their enforcement of this Directive on education, providing warnings and education about the risk of transmission, while reserving the imposition of penalties, trespass enforcement, and other formal enforcement mechanisms for only the most egregious, repeat violations that put the public at risk,” the document said.
Swanson said his office and the Broadwater County Sheriff’s Office did not have the resources – or the intention – to cite everyone who did not wear a mask. However, though he was critical of the order, he said he is still hopeful people in the county will be willing to wear masks to help get through the COVID-19 crisis.
“If we’re going to have people that are just saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to it, you can’t make me,’ my request to them is going to be, ‘Don’t do it because we tell you, do it because we ask you, do it because we think it’s the prudent thing to do right now,’” said Swanson.