Gianforte pins pandemic plans on personal responsibility, incentives and vaccine

Rep. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown, listens as the Montana House Appropriations Committee hears public testimony on House Bill 3 Tuesday, a bill authorizing additional funding for several statewide programs through the end of June. Members of the committee were separated into mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers by plexiglass barriers. (Austin Amestoy/UM Legislative News Service)

Gov. Greg Gianforte said at a press conference Tuesday that he plans to focus the state’s pandemic response on personal responsibility and incentives, as well as expanded vaccine distribution.

“I fully intend to rescind the existing statewide mask mandate,” the governor said.

However, Gianforte said that in order to rescind the mask mandate, certain conditions must be met. 

“First, we need to start getting the vaccine to the most vulnerable,” he said. “Second, we need to protect businesses and schools from lawsuits if they make a good faith effort to protect individuals from the spread of the coronavirus and follow clear public health guidelines.” 

Gianforte also said he chooses to wear a mask and encouraged others to do the same in order to “show respect and to care for the people around us.”

The plan would give people older than 70 and younger adults with underlying health risks access to vaccines within “weeks, not months,” he said.  

Gianforte said those two groups make up some 250,000 Montanans. He also said although he is not yet 70 and so not currently in line for a vaccine, when his name comes up, he intends to get vaccinated.

The governor said he would not be changing county health organizations’ powers to enforce stricter mandates until Montana is no longer in a state of emergency, but hinted that statewide restrictions on businesses may change in the coming days to shift from mandates to incentives for businesses, as well as schools, nonprofits and places of worship.

“We want to publish very clear guidelines on how they can keep their employees and customers safe,” he said. “What we want to do is give these organizations some confidence that if they follow these publicly provided guidelines, they will be protected from lawsuits and that’s really what we’re trying to do with these incentives.”

Gianforte also said vaccine information would be published to the state’s COVID dashboard, and that he intended to grant all Montanans free access to COVID testing.

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.