Mask up Missoula: Health board passes measure requiring masks in all indoor public spaces

With the case count rising and participation lacking, Missoula County on Thursday became the second in Montana to mandate the wearing of face masks in all indoor public places – a rule that takes effect immediately.

In a special session, the City-County Health Board adopted the rule on a unanimous vote, saying efforts to strongly encourage the wearing of masks haven’t been successful.

“We had hoped in the community to increase the normal use of masks,” said City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy. “While a lot of people are trying and business are trying to require masks, we’ve been called upon and it’s been clearly indicated that it will take more of a mandate to support those who are trying and wish to go out and not be necessarily exposed to someone elses germs.”

The board passed the rule on what marked the worst day of COVID-19 in Montana at any point of the pandemic. On Thursday, the state logged 96 new infections and three additional deaths, the later resulting from an assisted living facility in Billings.

Missoula also has seen its case counts rise to 126 – double the infections from one month ago. Of those, 56 are active cases and health officials are tracing 510 close contacts – up 200 since the day before. Most infections have occurred in residents under 40, according to county health officials.

The rule adopted Thursday requires that everyone 12 and older wear face coverings when indoors in locations open to the public, including grocery stores, retail shops, buses, cabs and schools.

Children under 12 aren’t required to wear a mask but are encouraged to do so. The board was advised by legal officials not to make school-specific policies for children under 12, but to leave that to the school district.

Anna Conley, deputy county attorney, said state law grants a local health officer the authority to take actions that “protect the public from imminent threats.” Likewise, a county health board can take action to “protect the public from the introduction and spread of communicable disease.”

Conley said enforcement will be directed at businesses and establishments open to the public rather than individuals. If a customer refuses to mask up, he or she can be denied entry to an establishment. If the business fails to comply, the health department could take a series of actions that, in the end, could culminate with civil action or temporary closure.

“This rule and order is directed not at individuals, but at businesses and operators of indoor public spaces,” Conley said. “The idea of this rule is to regulate an indoor space, not to regulate individual actions, and to ensure that indoor spaces are safe to all those who enter them.”

Conley added that the rule and order doesn’t create an individual requirement for a person to wear a mask, and therefor an individual who refuses to wear a mask cannot be subject to criminal penalty under the new rule.

However, a business can deny an individual entry if he or she refuse to comply with the new masking rule. If the business or establishment doesn’t enforce the measure, it can be subject to fines or penalties.

“I think it’s really important that we take a step to do what we can to slow the spread of this disease,” said one proponent.

Several callers disagreed, saying it was an issue of civil liberty.

“The survival rate is very, very high for this new contagion, and most people do recover,” said one caller. “It’s almost like a psychological operation to see will we comply or will we not. I won’t have a choice but to comply. It’s infringing on civil liberties. We live in a free country, or we used to.”