HELENA — Montana’s local public-health officers and boards, who’ve made difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, have had their wings clipped by a trio of Republican-passed bills at the 2021 Legislature.
The bills – one of which is law, and the other two that are about to be – erase some enforcement power entirely, for things like mask mandates, and allow the public or local elected officials to curb health officers’ power.
“It’s a little bit like having legislation and shaking your finger at people for driving while under the influence, and then telling local law enforcement that they’re not allowed to do anything about it,” says Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley of Bozeman.
But a sponsor of one of the bills told MTN News that businesses were tired of being made to enforce mandates like wearing face-masks, or other restrictions, that antagonized customers.
“These (mandates) put businesses between a rock and a hard place,” said Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade. “They have customers who want to come into the business. They may or may not be wearing a mask, they may or may not be vaccinated. And it’s not the duty of the business to turn away those people.”
Hinkle sponsored House Bill 257, which was sent to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk for his signature Wednesday. It includes an amendatory veto added by the governor, so he’s expected to sign it.
HB257 says local governments, health boards or public-health officers cannot pass any ordinance or take any action that requires a business to deny access to a customer, or that denies a customer access to the business.
The bill also says the local government cannot take any actions to enforce such a requirement.
The other two bills are:
· HB121, which says local public-health officers can issue orders in response to a public-health emergency, but that the order can be amended or rescinded by a “local governing body,” such as a county commission.
The new law, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, also says non-emergency health orders must be approved by the government body.
· Senate Bill 108, which gives citizens the power to force an election to overturn a local public-health order. They would have to get the signatures of only 5 percent of the voters in the city or county, to force the election.
Sponsored by Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, the bill is on the governor’s desk.
All three bills passed on mostly party-line votes, with Republicans in favor.
Public-health officers strongly objected to an initial version of HB257, saying it essentially gutted any public-health actions that affect a business, such as ordering closure of a rodent-infested restaurant.
But subsequent amendments clarified that health officers still have power to take enforcement actions against individual businesses, for specific health violations.
What the new law would prevent is a county- or city-wide order that applies to all businesses and potentially restricts their customers.
Hinkle said health officers can still offer guidance to businesses and the public, on recommended practices to control disease, and that individual businesses can follow those guidelines and require masks or other precautions.
“What the bill specifically says is that they cannot be compelled to deny their customer, to send their customer out the door,” he said.
But the practical effect, health officers say, is that while businesses still could have their own requirements, they won’t be able to use law enforcement or local government to back them up, if people won’t comply.
“They can’t call the police and have anybody be (cited for) trespass if they refuse to follow the requirement,” said Drenda Niemann, Lewis and Clark County health officer. “That no longer will be an option.”
Helena and Lewis and Clark County still have a mask-mandate for indoor public spaces. Niemann said once HB257 is signed into law, it can’t be enforced.
“We will be shifting to a message that it’s still important to wear a mask,” she said. “The virus is still present. It’s still a threat. And we still don’t have the majority of our public vaccinated. Masks are an important tool to limit the threat and protect people in the community.”
Kelley and Niemann said the three bills weren’t necessary and essentially hamstring the ability of public-health officers and boards to do their job.