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Gianforte sticks with no mask mandates as Covid cases climb; ‘Consider’ vaccination

Dawn Stratton, a registered nurse in Kalispell, administers covid-19 vaccines at the Flathead County fairgrounds. (Katheryn Houghton/KHN)

HELENA — As new Covid-19 cases continue to surge in Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte said Monday the best response is for citizens to take “personal responsibility” and consider getting vaccinated.

“Nine out of 10 people that are hospitalized now, recently, are people that have been unvaccinated,” he told MTN News in an interview. “I got mine; they’re safe and effective. If you haven’t been vaccinated, I encourage you to go talk to your (medical) professional and consider it.”

Yet the state won’t be issuing any mandates, on face-coverings or other safety steps, Gianforte said – and, he stood by his signing of a new law that forbids businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated or forbids them from denying services to those who aren’t vaccinated.

“One of the things that we’ve learned over this last year is that mandates don’t work,” he said. “I campaigned on a platform of personal responsibility. … We’re going to focus on personal responsibility instead of mandates.”

When asked why businesses should be prohibited from choosing to enforce requirements to protect their employees or customers, Gianforte replied:

“We’re not taking away anybody’s choice, because people can choose to wear a mask, they can choose to get vaccinated. We’re just not telling them how to live their lives.”

The Republican-led Legislature and Gianforte, a Republican, also approved a law this spring that essentially prohibits local health departments from enforcing mandates on businesses, such as wearing masks indoors, limiting the size of gathering or other steps to prevent Covid-19 spread.

In the past two weeks, Montana has averaged more than 200 new Covid-19 cases a day – the highest daily numbers since February. Active cases statewide have climbed to 2,166 and hospitalizations to 154, levels not seen since late January or February.

The state’s vaccination rate sits at 49 percent of eligible people, in the mid-lower tier among the states. The nationwide average is close to 60 percent (for people 12 and older).

Experts say a vaccination rate of at least 70 percent is needed to create herd immunity against the virus.

Laurel Riek, head of the Disease Control and Prevention Division for the city-county health department in Helena, said there’s been an uptick in interest in vaccinations lately, and that the vaccination is “readily available.”

The local health department also is still recommending that people wear face-coverings at indoor places accessible to the public and limit the size of gatherings, she said.

But, because of a new law, the city and county can’t make anyone enforce that rule, Riek said.

“The only thing we can do is recommend that people wear that mask in indoor places and really take into consideration the community at-large, and provide a way to keep everybody safe,” she told MTN News.

Gianforte’s health department has been running public-service announcements, usually with health professionals, talking up the Covid-19 vaccine and telling people where to get them.

Yet while Gianforte touts his efforts to push people toward vaccines, he hasn’t appeared in any PSAs himself, and often stops short of telling people directly to get vaccinated – instead saying they should “consider” getting the vaccine or talking to their health-care adviser about getting one.

“The data that we have is that the people that citizens respect are the medical professionals,” he said. “And that’s why we’ve put them at the front of this campaign.”