In response to Governor Steve Bullock’s mask mandate earlier this week, the City-County Health Department in Great Falls has taken on the responsibility of county-wide mask enforcement as well as the role of call center for reports of non-compliance.
Bullock announced on Wednesday a state-wide directive requiring face coverings in Montana, effective immediately, in all counties that have four or more active cases of COVID-19, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Health officials reported 137 new COVID-19 cases across Montana on Friday, and two new deaths (details).
CCHD health officer Trisha Gardner says the CCHD will accept calls of noncompliance from anyone in the public and look into those reports. Gardner said many calls have already come in since the mandate went into effect: “We’ve gotten a number of complaints today and started following up on those."
Gardner explained the process of handling the reports: “We investigate those and then try to work with the business owners, educate them, bring them into compliance where we can and of course when necessary, then down the line if we continue to get non-compliance, we'll work with law enforcement and the attorneys to pursue a legal avenue.”
A different set of procedures apply to individuals who fail to comply with the mandate. “The business has the right to, of course, refuse service to those individuals. If they continue to be belligerent or refuse to leave the business...of course businesses have the ability to call on law enforcement in those cases and can actually put what is known as a trespass in place, which can lead to both fines and other criminal charges for the individual,” she explained.
CCHD asks that you call them at 406-454-6950 or email CCHD at firstname.lastname@example.org to report any cases of non-compliance; you should not call 911, the police, or the Sheriff's Office, as these reports are not considered emergencies.
“These are not complaints that are life and death...call the health department first,” Gardner said.
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said on Thursday: “911 is not the appropriate call to make over someone not wearing a mask.” He continued, “There's nothing in the Constitution that says me as a law enforcement officer can walk up to citizens out in public and demand that they wear a mask. We are asking you to wear a mask because we don't want to see more people get sick, and we also want to protect our businesses that are very much under this mandate because of their licenses."
However, in the case that a mask issue escalates to a criminal issue, law enforcement can intervene. “If there's a situation where someone refuses to wear a mask in a business...and the owner or proprietor asks that person to leave, then it would be appropriate to involve law enforcement because then it becomes a trespass issue,” Slaughter said.
The state-wide directive requires that masks be used in most indoor settings and where social distancing cannot be maintained. Bullock said businesses have the right to deny entry to anyone not wearing a mask. But he stopped short of calling for fines or other punishment for failing to comply. He said law enforcement and public health agencies should take the role of education for most violators and reserve harsher action for repeat offenders.
The directive requires businesses, government offices, and other indoor spaces open to the public to ensure that employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, and visitor wear a face mask that covers their mouth and nose while inside such spaces. The directive also requires face coverings at organized outdoor activities of 50 or more people, where social distancing is not possible or is not observed.
“Many Montanans answered the call to mask up – a call that came from our hospitals, nurses, and doctors, our vibrant small business community, our frontline workers, and our high-risk neighbors,” Bullock said. “I thank all of those who take seriously their personal responsibility and their role in stopping COVID-19. But we need even more Montanans, and the visitors who come here, to mask up.”