HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte announced some of his new COVID-19 policies on Tuesday saying he will remove the mask mandate and adjust vaccination strategies.
Gov. Gianforte made it clear he wants to repeal a mask mandate once vaccination criteria has been met and businesses, schools, nonprofits, and churches are protected from litigation if they follow public health guidelines.
Lewis and Clark Public Health (LCPH) expressed concerns with the governor wanting to remove the mask mandate under just those criteria and the message it might send.
“In a time when a unified approach is needed to protect individuals, their families, their friends and their neighbors statewide directives are very beneficial to help set the standard and the expectation for behavior just like many other laws do,” said Health Officer Drenda Niemann. “We urge the governor to reconsider and continue that mask mandate that has most assuredly lowered the number of infections and deaths in our state.”
Any local public health orders will remain in effect once the state’s mask mandate is lifted. Montana law currently gives broad power to the local board of health to create restrictions during a time of emergency.
Lewis and Clark County’s COVID rules are designed to go away over time once certain COVID thresholds are met. Niemann said she’s personally more than looking forward to when things can go back to normal.
“I am absolutely looking forward to the day when the emergency is over and kids can get back to a regular day of school and businesses can get back to serving their customers without any restrictions,” said Niemann.
Gov. Gianforte’s new vaccination policy for Phase 1B will significantly increase the number of individuals that will qualify for the next round of vaccination in Montana. On Tuesday Gianforte announced all those age 70 or older, was age 75, and anyone 16 to 69 years of age that has an underlying severe medical condition will qualify.
Niemann agrees that those individuals should be a priority, but is worried about distribution given that it increases the number of people in the county that qualify for the vaccine by nearly 30,000 individuals.
“The logistics alone are monumental,” said Niemann. “We’ll do the best that we can. We’ve been able to vaccinated out at the Fairgrounds; 300 to 400 people from a 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. time frame. If you break that math down we’re looking at several months before we get through 1B.”
Niemann says her team will be developing new strategies in the coming days for vaccination efforts to line up with the state’s new vaccination plan. They intended to continue to use the drive-through clinic at the Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds and are most concerned about the number of vaccine doses available to them and meeting staffing requirements.
Niemann says she’d also like to see more on what Gov. Gianforte is intending for wanting COVID-19 liability protections for businesses,