Montana creates mask requirement for indoor, outdoor public spaces

Masks are now mandatory in public places as the number of new COViD-19 cases continues to climb in Montana.

On Wednesday, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that Montana’s continuing resurgence of COVID-19 cases prompted him to require face coverings inside public places in counties with four or more active cases of coronavirus.

The only exceptions are for patrons of eating and drinking establishments, activities that make masks unsafe or children younger than 5. In addition, people must were masks at outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people if social distancing cannot be maintained.

As of Tuesday, 24 of Montana’s 56 counties have four or more active cases. Yellowstone County has 396 active cases and Gallatin County has 242. Missoula County, which passed its facemask mandate on Friday, has 60 after adding five more on Tuesday.

As counties hit the mark of four active cases, they will be required to implement the directive.

“When it comes to total cases in Montana, we’ve doubled the number of cases just since the start of July,” Bullock said. “Inability to control the spread of COVID-19 endangers vulnerable Montanans, it endangers businesses who want to keep their doors open, and hospitals who need the capacity to treat both COVID-19 patients and all others needing medical care.

“Too many continue to congregate in large gatherings where a single person can spread COVID-19 to many others. And too few are wearing face coverings in public settings where social distancing is not possible.”

Studies have shown that masks reduce the spread of disease by limiting or eliminating minute droplets from people’s breath from getting on others.

In the past week, more politicians, from Montana’s senators to Majority leader Mitch McConnell and the First Lady, have been urging people to wear face coverings.

Bullock said he considered mandating face coverings during the past few weeks, but he was hoping Montanans would take it upon themselves to do the right thing. In the meantime, the administration was watching the steps that other states were taking such as Texas. Some have gone back to Phase I restrictions, but Bullock said he doesn’t want that. Something as simple as wearing masks could avert that.

Little by little, various groups and organizations have advocated for wearing masks, such as Whitefish, Missoula County, the University of Montana Grizzlies and Montana State University Bobcats. But with surging cases, it’s not enough so the administration has finally stepped in.

“We’ve been working to get greater community acceptance of masks. We want to get to that point where Montanans are doing right not because of a mandate or directive, but because we know it’s the right thing to do,” Bullock said. “For a mask requirement to be effective, it needs to become socially acceptable.”

Bullock emphasized that businesses can refuse service to those not wearing masks and ask them to leave. Business owners can call law enforcement, but officers will respond mainly to educate offending patrons.

“No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service – it’s that simple,” Bullock said.

As many as nine counties have community spread, which means health professionals can’t trace where people caught the virus. So Bullock also reminded business owners they can apply for business adaptability grants to buy masks and hand sanitizer for their employees and patrons.

Then Bullock learned on Monday that the private lab that analyzes Montana’s surveillance tests – collected by test clinics that are rotating through Montana’s communities – would stop accepting test kits for two to three weeks, because it is overwhelmed.

Quest Diagnostics has been taking a week to 10 days to return test results and said Monday that COVID-19 spikes across the nation mean that they’ve fallen further behind.

Fortunately, most of the people who participate in the test clinics don’t come back as positive for the disease. But the break in testing makes it more difficult for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services to know if outbreaks occur. Montana was hitting its target of 15,000 tests a week but that will come to a screeching halt while the administration tries to find alternatives.

Bullock said the federal government encouraged the states to use private companies for their testing. But with some states experiencing thousands of new cases a day, the sudden surge is leaving all states with nowhere to turn for lab analysis.

Meanwhile, Montana’s state lab processes the more critical tests from people with symptoms and their contacts. After adding additional equipment, it’s chugging away, processing 1,200 to 1,300 tests a day and producing results within 24 to 72 hours.

“Now we’re at another road block, and it’s uncertain over the next few weeks whether we can stand up all the mass community snapshot testing events that we’ve been encouraged to plan for,” Bullock said. “I’m not going to let shortcomings or obstacles or shortcomings of Congress and the federal government from doing what’s right for Montana.”

The Bullock administration is looking at other options with the state lab or with an out-of-state lab to try to continue the community testing.

Meanwhile, only about a month remains before school starts and it’s still uncertain what will happen with schools. The Trump administration is insisting that schools open, but school boards are trying to determine what that will look like.

So $75 million from the CARES Act will be distributed to Montana’s K-12 schools to help them prepare to educate students for the first half of the school year in a safe manner. Among other things, the money can help provide addition transportation or hire additional staff. An additional amount based on per-student funding will go to private schools.

Masks will be encouraged in schools, Bullock said.

“There’s no reason this needs to be political because COVID-19 isn’t political,” Bullock said. “Coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re Republican, Democrat or Independent. It doesn’t care about theories or speculations or projections. It’s an unthinking parasite that can infect you either way ,and it relies on you to spread it to others. So this is about being a Montanan and being supportive of those around us.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.