HELENA — Republican state lawmakers in Montana rejected proposals Wednesday by Democrats to require masks at next month’s legislative session or meet remotely, opting instead to form a panel that will assess what’s needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Republicans, who hold majorities in both legislative chambers, also declined to delay the session until the vaccine is widely available. Small businesses depend on swift action from the Legislature to survive, said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, a Republican from Hamilton who drafted the proposal to create the panel.
The panel would be comprised of six Republicans and two Democrats. Under the rules that Republicans advanced, lawmakers would be allowed to participate remotely with permission from their caucus leadership.
But the joint rules committee voted against adopting additional regulations Wednesday following an hour of public testimony from public health officials, teachers and business owners who spoke in favor of more stringent measures to limit the spread of the virus.
“Will it solve everything? No,” said Ellsworth said during the hearing. “I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick. It’s possible there will be members that die. But that possibility is there regardless of if we’re here or not.”
That comment drew a rebuke from Democratic Sen. Pat Flowers of Belgrade.
“We’re going to show up on the first day with no safeguards in place, we’re going to get people sick, there’s no question about it, and some people may die as a result of this action,” Flowers said. “I hope you’re all prepared to take this on as a responsibility when you vote on this.”
The panel will be finalized after the full legislature convenes Jan. 4. If the panel is formally adopted, lawmakers will not be required to participate in COVID-19 testing or be required to accept a vaccine once it becomes widely available.
Dr. Kris Spanjian, a physician who came out of retirement to care for COVID-19 patients, was one of numerous public health officials who urged the committee to hold the session remotely.
“It seems that many of you have an irrational fear and loathing of mask wearing. The idea that masks are harmful to the wearer is plainly false and shows a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to learn. But if the session is held remotely, everyone can participate in the maskless comfort of their own home or office,” she said.
Mike Rooney, operations director for Downtown Helena Inc., said during the meeting that mask wearing is crucial for the survival of the city’s downtown businesses.
Derek Skees, a Republican from Kalispell, said that “COVID is a fluid situation” as he explained Republican opposition to the measures proposed by Democrats and said the vote doesn’t mean some of the rules may not be adopted later.
“Personal responsibility — that’s what we’re empowering,” Skees said, adding that during visits to Helena restaurants he encountered resistance to a health mandate that has required masks be worn in the city since July. “Everybody there is telling me to wear a mask because they don’t want the dictator that is your health officer to shut their restaurants down.”
The committee decision comes a day after Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, a Republican, sent a letter to legislative leadership outlining his plan to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the state Capitol.
Gianforte, who prior to the November election was seen in close proximity with supporters without wearing a mask, has said he would wear a mask in the capitol. According to the letter, the governor’s office will encourage all visitors to his office in the Capitol to wear a mask, perform temperature checks for staff and visitors, facilitate regular testing for staff, promote social distancing, sanitize workspaces regularly, and allow staff to work remotely when possible.
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