Confusion, conspiracy in COVID-19 panel

Montana legislative committee makes headway on contact tracing

Helena, Montana, United States, North America

Republicans continued to resist a mask requirement at the Montana Capitol as lawmakers on the Legislature’s COVID-19 response panel were again treated Thursday to the whole range of heterodox perspectives on the virus that abounds in the state.

Colorful public testimony from Montanans frustrated with the Capitol for all manner of reasons capped off the slow-moving hearing. Democrats tried to push several amendments to shape the panel’s response, but only gained traction in formalizing requirements for contact tracing.

“I continue to be worried that we don’t have a clear plan for what happens when one of our members tests positive,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena.

In public testimony, Charlotte Sanborn of Helena began with a Shakespeare quote to explain her belief that she’s living in a “dystopian horror show” due to mask mandates and other COVID-19 precautions. She likened them to depictions of bondage in the film “Pulp Fiction” and the treatment of people incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay.

“Imagine how your stomach turns when you recall images of Guantanamo Bay detainees or hear of a violent kidnapping,” she said. “That is how I and many others feel when we see people required to wear masks. It is grotesque and triggers our core instincts about human dignity.”

Others were more measured but still furthered unfounded theories about the supposed censorship of medical professionals who speak out against masks and social distancing and the suppression of a cure for the deadly virus.

The Capitol is one place where requirements for masks and other COVID-19 precautions are more just guidelines, with many lawmakers forgoing personal protective equipment when on the floor or in committee meetings. Newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has publicly stated his intent to rescind the state’s mask mandate in “weeks, not months,” but has yet to do so.

Republicans on the panel voted down an amendment to the COVID panel’s rules from House Minority Leader Abbott to mandate the wearing of protective masks in the Capitol’s staff work areas, instead leaving intact language stipulating that legislators agree to wear personal protective equipment while working with staff.

“I think it’s incredibly important we’re clear on what we want our members to do,” Abbott said.

Some members of the public encouraged lawmakers to take more serious steps to protect themselves and others who come to do business in Helena.

“Leadership needs to be shown at the Capitol,” said Derek Ivester, a business owner in Bozeman. “Already we have a hard time reminding people to keep their masks on. If the leadership doesn’t show by example that these need to be mandated, not recommendations, it’s just going to trickle down.”

Ivester told the committee that at the private Christian school his daughter attends, nobody bats an eye at wearing restrictive uniforms — so why not don masks?

The mask mandate was one of several amendments that Abbott and her counterpart in the upper chamber, Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, brought to the panel on Thursday in a meeting that stretched beyond two hours. Others included providing paid sick leave for temporary session workers who need to quarantine at home — an idea that died due to a lack of dedicated funding in the budget for session worker sick leave.

“Even though I’m empathetic, and understand the situation, I first need to understand how we are going to fund this,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, the committee chair, to Cohenour, who eventually withdrew her sick leave amendment. “To make a directive from this panel — not knowing we have the funding available — would be irresponsible.”

The panel has made some progress in adopting a formal set of COVID-19 rules, however.

On Monday, the Lewis and Clark County Board of Commissioners approved a contract for a county health worker to serve as a part-time contact tracer for lawmakers. One of the accepted amendments from Thursday’s hearing involved notifying lawmakers of their responsibility to reach out to that contact tracer and, where appropriate, their own county’s health department, if they test positive for the novel coronavirus.

Still, there seemed to be significant confusion among the lawmakers on the panel on its ultimate task as well as its process.

“I’m a little confused with the process,” said House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings. “Why do we need to formalize this in bits of pieces?”

House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, similarly asked why the rules the panel was debating couldn’t just be passed out to lawmakers immediately.

The panel’s two Democrats have been especially probing, repeatedly drilling Ellsworth on his plans for each day’s hearing and the exact nature of the series of COVID-19 precautions they’re considering.

Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, said he’s yet to decide when the committee will meet next.

As of Thursday morning, 1,077 people in Montana had died of the coronavirus, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The state counted 82,190 recoveries and 192 active hospitalizations.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Abbott proposed to mandate masks across the Capitol. The story has been updated to reflect that her proposal was to mandate the wearing of masks in staff work areas.