In his first press conference since being sworn in as governor of Montana, Greg Gianforte announced plans to rescind the statewide mask mandate put in place by former Democratic governor Steve Bullock.
The governor focused his message Tuesday on increasing the availability of the vaccine for vulnerable populations and shifting the COVID response strategy from state mandates to personable responsibility.
“In the coming days we will issue new directives and guidance to replace the existing ones. There will be changes, some guidance and directives will be revised, others will be removed entirely,” he said.
The announcement came the same day the state surpassed 1,000 COVID deaths.
“We are not out of the woods yet. We continue to see deaths. We continue to see infections. That’s why it’s imperative we continue the roll out of this vaccine,” Gianforte said.
To remove the mask mandate Gianforte said two things must be accomplished: Increased vaccine distribution to the most vulnerable populations and protecting small businesses and schools from lawsuits related to the spread of the coronavirus. While he did not deliver an exact timeline on when the mandate would be repealed, he said he hopes to do it in a matter of weeks and not months.
As part of his efforts increase accessibility of the vaccine to vulnerable populations, Gianforte changed the approach to rolling out the vaccine. Phase 1A will remain the same to include people like frontline health workers and people in long-term care facilities. But phase 1B group will be changed to include everyone aged 70 and older as well as people 16-69 with underlying health conditions. Group 1B accounts for about 250,000 people, Gianforte said.
A list of qualifying underlying conditions is expected to be sent out Tuesday afternoon.
This change will begin to take place immediately and will apply to incarcerated people, he said.
Phase 1B originally included people 75 and older, those residing in congregate care and correctional facilities, American Indians and other people of color who may be at elevated risk and frontline workers ranging from correction workers to grocery store clerks.
Montana has received 36,000 first doses of the vaccine and is slated to receive 41,000 more first doses and as of yesterday 23,000 Montanans have received the vaccine, he said.
“To combat the virus I believe in providing incentives and promoting personal responsibility are more effective than imposing impractical mandates,” he said at the Tuesday afternoon press conference. “In the meantime I choose to wear a mask and I encourage others to do the same as a way to show respect and care for the people around us.”
Gianforte also called on lawmakers to pass laws that will protect businesses, schools, places of worship and non-profit organizations from civil lawsuits if a plaintiff believes he or she gets COVID-19 on their premises.
Because the state is still under a period of emergency, local health officials will still be able to enforce local mask mandates even if the state mandate is repealed, Gianforte said.
Since being sworn in Monday, Gianforte said he has assembled a COVID-19 task force composed of local business owners, medical professionals, workers, local leaders and said he has told his cabinet members to make COVID a top priority in their respective agencies.
“We have a very serious health crisis on our hands. This is the number one issue for the state of Montana,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Matt Quinn, who led Bullocks COVID response team will also lead Gianforte’s.
In addition to increased accessibility to vaccinations, Gianforte said he also wants to expand testing so that eventually all Montanans will have access to it cost free.To add transparency to his COVID response, Gianforte said he will include vaccination numbers on the state’s COVID dashboard.
Addressing COVID is Gianforte’s top priority, he said, adding that he plans to look beyond just the health and economic affects of the pandemic but to look at the underreported aspects of it as well like the increased demand for mental health services, increased suicide rates, drug use, domestic violence and child abuse.
In regard to lifting restrictions on businesses like 50% capacity rates and a mandatory 10 p.m. closing time for some businesses, he said to stay tuned for changes in the coming days.
“We’re not going to rip the Band-Aid all off at once we are going to make a transition here,” he said.