Bullock Issues Montana Mask Mandate

Directive applies to counties with four or more active COVID-19 cases and aims to slow spread of virus

By Tristan Scott
Shoppers wearing face masks stroll around downtown Whitefish on July 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday issued a directive requiring face coverings in certain indoor spaces and at some organized outdoor activities in counties with four or more active cases of COVID-19, joining two dozen other states in enacting a public health measure aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

The directive is effective immediately and requires people to wear face coverings in businesses, government offices and other indoor venues open to the public, Bullock said. The coverings must cover a person’s mouth and nose and the directive applies to employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, and other members of the public. 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 on a press call Wednesday afternoon. “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.”

The directive is in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that people wear cloth face coverings in public and when around people outside one’s household, Bullock said.

The directive also comes one day after the city of Whitefish passed its own mask ordinance requiring face coverings in certain public settings, while other local city and county governments have implemented similar versions, including Missoula and Big Horn counties; Gallatin County, which has one of the highest rates of community spread in the state, was in the process of implementing one when local officials delayed a vote due to public protest.

Bullock applauded local governments that stepped up to address their community’s own needs, even as some residents continue to push back on the mandates. According to Bullock, social acceptance of masks takes time, but it remains one of the simplest and least restrictive protective measures to slow the spread of a virus.

A mask ordinance is far more palatable than the alternative of instituting another wave of restrictions on businesses, Bullock said, particularly as some recently reopened establishments take steps backward due to employee health concerns.

In the Flathead Valley, for example, the Great Northern Bar in Whitefish has temporarily closed after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, while Moose’s Saloon in Kalispell announced it had temporarily closed its doors to the public on Wednesday after one of its employees tested positive.

The Moose’s employee last worked on July 10 and is under quarantine, according to management.

“We learned of the positive case on Wednesday July 15 and have decided to temporarily close,” the popular downtown establishment posted on its Facebook page. “We are working closely with the the Flathead County Health Department to continue to keep the community’s health at the center of all of the decisions we make. We thank you for your continued support and look forward to serving you again when we know it is safe to do so.”

Also on Wednesday, Ciao Mambo in Whitefish temporarily closed its doors after an employee tested positive.

“There’s no reason this needs to be political, because COVID-19 isn’t political. Instead, this is about being a Montanan and being supportive of those around us,” Bullock said. “Montanans need to not only feel safe, but be safe to continue supporting small businesses like restaurants, breweries, clothing stores, bookshops, and more. And Montanans need to be healthy to work.”

Bullock issued the new mandate on the same day that Montana set a single-day record for new cases, with health officials announcing 145 new detections, including eight new cases in Flathead County, pushing the local three-day total to 26.

The state now has 1,147 active cases and 37 hospitalizations, while 34 people have died.

While the new mandate equips state and local health officials with enforcement authority, Bullock said education will be the key to compliance.

The directive does not require face coverings in counties with three or fewer active cases or for children under 5, though face coverings are strongly encouraged in both cases. Other exceptions include children under 2, while eating or drinking at businesses that sell food or drinks, during activities that make face coverings unsafe (like strenuous physical exercise or swimming), while giving speeches or performances in front of a socially distanced audience, while receiving medical care or for people with a preexisting condition that would make wearing a face covering unsafe.

Under the directive, businesses, government offices and other publicly operating spaces will provide face coverings for employees and volunteers, and post signs stating that face coverings are required for people 5 and older.

Businesses, other indoor spaces open to the public and sponsors of organized outdoor activities may also deny entry, refuse service or ask any person to leave if they refuse to wear a face covering. If necessary, they may rely on peace officers to enforce the state’s trespassing laws if a person refuses to wear a face covering and refuses to leave the premises.

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.

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