Gov. Greg Gianforte acknowledged the high degree of transmissibility of the omicron COVID-19 variant but maintained at a press conference Tuesday at the Capitol that Montana would not return to a state of emergency or implement a vaccine mandate.
“The state does not need to exercise emergency powers,” Gianforte said at the press briefing, held to mark the governor’s first year in office.
Gianforte, the first Republican governor in Montana in 16 years, was sworn in January 4 of last year. On Tuesday, he listed several of his hallmark policy accomplishments from the year: the Legislature, at his behest, passed a $120 million income tax cut, enacted a variety of abortion restrictions, simplified the tax code, expanded concealed carry of firearms and more.
In his first year, the state had a fluctuating experience with COVID-19.
The governor, who has received both COVID-19 vaccine shots plus a booster, said Tuesday that he encourages vaccination as the best way to prevent hospitalization and serious illness from the virus. But he also criticized the Democratic presidential administration of Joe Biden for taking “heavy handed” measures against the virus. Montana and other GOP-led states have gone to court over attempts from the federal government at implementing vaccine or testing requirements for large employers, federal workers and other groups.
Courts have begun to respond, most recently this week, when a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction preventing the feds from implementing a vaccine mandate for Head Start, a federal pre-K program.
Montana reported 935 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. More than 2,900 people in the state have died from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. Nationally, omicron, which is more contagious than previous variants, makes up the vast majority of COVID-19 cases sequenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gianforte said that though omicron may mean an increase in case numbers in Montana, other states have indicated that the swell could taper off quickly. The variant has additionally proven to not be as severe as its predecessors for those with vaccines, especially those who have received a booster. Gianforte also touted therapies like monoclonal antibody treatment, which are available on a limited basis to those with high risk of hospitalization from COVID.
When the governor took office last January, Montana still had a mask mandate on the books, as well as restrictions on capacity and hours of operation intended to stop the spread of the virus. He lifted those emergency orders after the state Legislature passed a law shielding businesses and other entities from legal liability if someone contracted COVID on site.
Montana was also the first state in the country to end federally-funded enhanced unemployment benefits, which Gianforte presented as an impediment to job growth.
“My message today is the same as it was, as I shared all over in the state last year,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”