Montana’s Virus Response Could be Decided at the Polls

Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney both pledge to rely on the advice of public health professionals, but their approach to the virus has differed

By Associated Press
Lt. Governor Mike Cooney tours a segment of the Great Northern Historical Trail in the Batavia area west of Kalispell on July 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

HELENA – The open race to become Montana’s next governor will not only settle a bitter and tightly contested race, it will determine which course the sprawling state takes after the election to combat the coronavirus that has run rampant in recent weeks.

Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney both pledge to rely on the advice of public health professionals, but their approach to the virus has differed at every turn of the campaign.

Cooney, who currently serves as lieutenant governor, has said he would focus on enforcing statewide health regulations implemented by current Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate because he’s termed out as governor.

Gianforte, who currently serves as Montana’s lone representative in the U.S. House, has indicated he might repeal some of those rules.

Gianforte, who has faced criticism for taking off his mask and hugging unmasked supporters at events leading up to the election, has said he would instead rely on people practicing “personal responsibility.” He has said he would focus on reopening the state’s economy, which has already shown signs of recovery since taking a hit from the pandemic, with unemployment dropping to 5.3% in September after spiking to 11.9% in April. That would mirror the direction many other states led by GOP governors have taken.

“We can’t neglect the fact that the actions that have been taken have resulted in 150,000 Montanans losing their jobs,” Gianforte said during an Oct. 3 debate, when asked if he would support lifting the mandates instituted by the current administration.

With infection rates on the rise and the state’s health care system under continued stress, Gianforte hasn’t indicated how he would keep infection rates at bay.

“We don’t know where we’ll be more than two months from now – with the virus or a vaccine – but regardless of where we are, Greg will rely on the advice of public health professionals and community leaders,” Gianforte spokesperson Travis Hall wrote in an email.

Cooney, on the other hand, has said he would go further than the current governor has in requiring masks across the state. Bullock implemented a mask mandate in July for all counties with at least four actives cases, now in effect for all but five of the state’s 56 counties. Cooney says he would consider extending that mandate to all counties, regardless of case count.

“The virus doesn’t understand boundaries, it doesn’t understand what county lines are,” Cooney said. “People travel, the virus is going to travel.”

He also said he would work to increase enforcement of the mask mandate and other health regulations, including limits of the size of gatherings and social distancing requirements.

“Many areas where we’ve seen spikes are where we have seen folks not willing to enforce the guidelines that have been laid out,” Cooney said during a recent roundtable with health experts, later stating that statewide health mandates would be his top priority in working to limit the spread of the virus if elected.

Gianforte hasn’t shown support for enforcement actions against health mandate violators. After the state health department took legal action this month against businesses that refused to follow the mask mandate, a spokesperson for Gianforte’s campaign said small businesses and workers “shouldn’t be unfairly targeted.”

The Republican has also hung his hopes on a vaccine to bring an end to the pandemic by early next year, but has not elaborated on a plan to distribute that vaccine or persuade those wary about taking it.

Some Montana residents may refuse a vaccine when it’s available, according to Dr. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, who spoke with Cooney during the recent roundtable. Lipkin said that laying the groundwork to ensure public trust in the vaccine will be critical. Cooney has said he would prioritize creating a plan for distribution of a vaccine.

In a July town hall, Gianforte extolled the idea of herd immunity, an approach health experts have said would cause thousands of additional deaths and overwhelm the health care system.

Cooney has said that access to affordable health care is key to the state’s economic recovery from the damaged sustained since the pandemic reached the state in March. Gianforte has voiced support in the past for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which Democrats say would leave 90,000 people in the state without health coverage.

The candidates’ plans for dealing with the pandemic have likely been top of mind for Montana voters in a race that some polls show is a tossup, said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana.

More than half of eligible voters have already cast their ballots in Montana, where most counties elected to hold voting by mail to limit the spread of the virus.

“It’s the dominating feature in our lives right now, and it’s connected to the economy, which is a typically a top-tier issue,” Saldin said.

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