HELENA — As new Covid-19 cases hit another daily high in Montana Wednesday, Gov. Steve Bullock made face masks required attire in 23 counties, at indoor spaces frequented by the public and at some group outdoor activities as well.
At a Capitol news conference, the Democratic governor said calls from himself and other Montana leaders for citizens to voluntarily wear masks had failed to stem a rising tide of new cases in the past few weeks.
“Unfortunately, it’s become clear that we need to do more, and that asking folks to do the right thing isn’t enough,” he said.
Bullock’s directive, effective immediately, said masks that cover one’s mouth and nose will be required in counties that have at least four active Covid-19 cases, in businesses, government offices and other indoor spaces open to the public.
Face coverings also will be required at organized outdoor activities of 50 or more people, where social-distancing is not possible or is not observed, he added.
The four-case minimum applied to 23 counties Wednesday, including the state’s eight most populous counties.
Bullock’s order came on a day when 145 new Covid-19 cases were reported in Montana – the highest daily total so far. He noted that the number of total cases in Montana has doubled in two weeks, to 2,096, and that active cases had gone from 55 to more than 1,000 in the past month.
The “inability to control the spread” of the virus is endangering vulnerable Montanans, businesses and the ability of hospitals to treat affected people and those who need other medical care, the governor said.
Bullock also announced Wednesday that he’s making available $75 million in state coronavirus relief funds for public schools, to help them pay for the cost of mitigating Covid-19 infection risks as they reopen this fall. Money also will be provided to private schools, he added.
The Montana Hospital Association issued a statement in support of the face-mask order, saying it has advocated wearing masks since the governor started reopening the state economy in late April.
But Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson, a Republican, said the mandate will be difficult to enforce and failed to meet criteria requested by some county attorneys and sheriffs who met with the governor last week.
He said the group recommended “education and encouragement” to wear masks, that any order be clear and consistent, and that the public get advance notice of a mandate.
“Now I have to figure out how to immediately enforce an unclear and complicated mandate which applies in some areas of the state and not others,” Swanson said in a statement. “I’m concerned that the mandate is going to take away the progress we have been making in getting buy-in by the public to wear masks voluntarily.”
Bullock said pleading for voluntary compliance wasn’t getting the job done, as evidenced by the surge in new cases across the state in recent weeks. He said he anticipates making enforcement more educational, but that businesses who aren’t getting cooperation from the public could call law enforcement to cite non-compliers for trespassing.
“No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service – it’s that simple,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how easy it is to wear a mask. You saw me take mine off before speaking today. Just how we put a seatbelt on, as we get in a car, and unbuckle it when we need to get out.”
He also said while some may feel it’s their right not to wear a mask, they don’t have a right to infect others – and that it shouldn’t be a political issue, but rather a step toward helping the community.
“Montanans need to not only feel safe, but to be safe – to continue supporting small businesses, like restaurants, breweries, clothing shops and more,” he said. “And Montanans need to be healthy to work.”
The order does not apply to children under 5 years old, to people eating or drinking at businesses that sell food, to people giving speeches or performances, or to those engaging in strenuous physical activity that may make wearing masks unsafe, such as swimming.