Anticipating a reversal by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte of the existing statewide mask directive, the Whitefish City Council on Jan. 4 passed an emergency ordinance requiring the continued use of face coverings in public settings within city limits due to the continued threat of COVID-19.
One day later, Gianforte revealed his plan to lift the mandate enacted by his predecessor, former Gov. Steve Bullock, but said cities and counties updating or implementing their own policies had the latitude to do so. The newly inaugurated Republican governor said he “fully intends to rescind the mask ordinance” once the vaccine is more widely available to vulnerable Montanans, such as those aged 70 years or older and anyone with underlying health conditions. He also tasked the Montana Legislature with crafting side rails to protect businesses, places of worship, nonprofits, and schools protecting them from litigation if they implemented measures of their own.
“The path to removing the mask mandate is conditioned on two things — getting the vaccine to our most vulnerable and getting protections for businesses, nonprofits, places of worship, and schools,” Gianforte said at a press conference Jan. 5.
According to Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith, the preemptive local ordinance was drafted in response to Gianforte’s earlier indication that “in his initial days in office, he plans to lift the mask directive administered by former Governor Bullock,” she said.
Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell was on hand during the meeting to answer council members’ questions about extending the mask requirements, and said leaving such public health controls in place was still appropriate at this stage of the pandemic.
“We’ll see what happens in the next few days, but mask use is a good demonstrative public health measure when you can’t socially distance,” Russell told council members.
The council approved the emergency ordinance in a unanimous vote following a public hearing, passing a measure that closely mirrors the local directive city officials passed in July, one day before Bullock, a Democrat who served two terms as Montana’s governor, announced the statewide mask mandate currently in effect.
In light of Gianforte’s intention to overturn the directive, Whitefish council members said they believed the community would be safer with an emergency ordinance in effect, particularly as visitors flock to Whitefish Mountain Resort and businesses and schools strive to remain open.
“Due to the overwhelming consensus of current medical and scientific evidence indicating that wearing face coverings reduces the transmissibility of COVID-19, and the comments received during the public hearing, the City of Whitefish will continue to require their use,” Smith said. “The city remains committed to following the recommendations of our public health leaders to protect its citizens, visitors, and our most vulnerable population.”
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said an extension of the mask ordinance was appropriate in the mountain resort town, where ski season is underway and tourists are arriving in droves.
“In Montana, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to managing this pandemic,” Muhlfeld said. “We are a unique town with a large tourist base, and by taking this pre-emptive and proactive measure, we are hoping it will help keep our ski lifts turning and our businesses and schools open.”
According to Russell, Flathead County has been experiencing a downward trend in new cases of COVID-19, but that the weeks following the busy holiday season will be crucial.
“We are seeing a good downward trend in cases since the first of November,” Russell said, noting that the county’s positivity rate has been sitting at 14.8% for the past two weeks. “The next three weeks are going to be super, super critical to see where we go, but we have been seeing this downward trend even before entering the holidays.”
Russell said his department would wait to review Gianforte’s public health controls before making any recommendations about implementing additional countywide measures. As of Jan. 4, Russell said Logan Health (formerly Kalispell Regional Healthcare) had administered 1,782 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to frontline health care providers and emergency service personnel, while North Valley Hospital in Whitefish had administered 400 doses.
Whitefish’s emergency ordinance requires that “all businesses, government offices, or other persons responsible for indoor spaces open to the public shall require and take reasonable measures to ensure that all employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, or other members of the public wear a face covering that covers their mouth and nose at all times while entering or remaining in any indoor spaces open to the public.”
Additionally, “all points of entry open to the public shall have a clearly visible sign posted stating: ‘Mask or face covering use required for ages five and older.’”
For any outdoor gatherings, “where social distancing is not possible or is not observed, sponsors shall require and take reasonable measures to ensure that all persons attending an organized outdoor activity wear a face covering that covers their mouth and nose at all times.”
The ordinance continues: “At all outdoor gatherings, whether or not it constitutes an organized outdoor activity, all individuals are required to wear face coverings while in attendance where it is impracticable to maintain six feet of physical distance at all times, or where attendees are not observing at least six feet of physical distance from others.”
The charter town of Whitefish has remained steadfast in continually encouraging its citizens to slow the spread of COVID-19. Notably, the Whitefish COVID-19 Task Force installed 72 banners in downtown Whitefish featuring masked community members, organized over 50 videos encouraging COVID-safe behavior, and worked with Whitefish restaurants by providing compostable takeout containers, encouraging more robust dine-out programs.
For more information, visit WhitefishCovidCares.com.