Missoula city and county leaders join UM, public schools in praising health order requiring masks

Missoula Mayor John Engen, pictured, and Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick joined the University of Montana and Missoula County Public Schools on Thursday in praising a health board decision requiring masks in all indoor public places. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

City and county leaders joined education, hospital and economic officials on Thursday in praising a local health board decision to require face masks in all indoor public spaces in Missoula County.

Short of another economic shutdown, requiring face masks represents what officials described as a simple and noninvasive step in slowing the spread of COVID-19 – a virus that’s logging more infections now than it did when the pandemic began in March.

“We opened back up and we’ve seen the number of cases rise to a level that’s greater than where they were in the springtime,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “We realize that it’s untenable to remain as we are right now. It’s also untenable to have our economy completely closed down. This is our first best track to come up with a way to be open and safe.”

City and county leaders last week wrote a letter to City-County Health Office Ellen Leahy encouraging her to call a special meeting of the health board and adopt a mandatory face mask rule.

The health department also received thousands of public comments showing wide support for the order. Of the comments cataloged, 81% of county residents supported the rule while 19% opposed it.

“This is a common sense step forward during a time when this virus is on the rise, not on the wane,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “It provides consistency throughout the community, gives businesses guidance, creates a level playing field and creates expectations in the community we can all acknowledge and move forward with.”

Leahy last week said she supported a mask rule, though questions around enforcement and implementation lingered. Those were resolved, and coupled with support from city and county officials, she and the health board took action.

Other communities in Montana struggling with the spread of the virus don’t enjoy the same support, she said.

“We have so much support, and they recognize that in this community, we can do some of the really hard things to do,” Leahy said. “This isn’t an easy lift for anybody. I hope this helps everyone whose been trying to do more with masks and needed your support to do so.”

Local health officials provide an update on testing in Missoula County. A rule issued by the City-County Health Board on Thursday requires masks be worn by those 12 and over in all indoor spaces open to the public. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Both the University of Montana and Missoula County Public Schools backed the measure. After Thursday’s vote, they praised the health board for taking decisive action.

While the order requires masks for those 12 and over in all indoor places open the public, MCPS is working to develop policies and procedures for those under 12 when on school property.

“We believe it will be critically important if we’re going to go back to school in some kind of safe manner,” said Superintendent Rob Watson. “We know it’s going to be difficult to socially distance, so when we can’t socially distance, masks will be that much more important. We believe we can develop policies and procedures for our students who are under the age of 12.”

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said the school is working on plans for a return to classroom instruction this fall. The use of masks will play a role in creating a safe environment for the campus community.

This week, a task force directed by the Montana Commission of Higher Education agreed to recommend that the Montana University System adopt a mandatory mask rule for all state campuses.

“We at UM have been supportive of a mask requirement on campus, and we’re pleased to see this recommendation,” Bodnar said. “While rules and regulations are important, ultimately our ability to mitigate this pandemic is going to be dependent on behavioral change and cooperation by members of our community.”

Both the Missoula Economic Partnership and the city’s hospital executives also supported the move.

“We’re concerned about the spread of COVID in our community, and we know that masking is one of the simplest and effective means of slowing the spread in indoor public places,” said Dean French, CEO of Community Medical Center. “I view this as protecting our public and protecting the integrity of our healthcare system so we’re not straining our capacity.

“But I also see it as an economic decision. The simple act of masking I think is the simplest way to preserve our ability to maintain the business and economic environment in Missoula County.”