Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Wednesday that he will let the statewide mask mandate expire Friday.
The announcement comes the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new research showing that wearing tight-fit masks, or even two masks increases protection against COVID-19.
The directive will not bar local jurisdictions from implementing their own mask mandates, Gianforte said.
At a press conference, the governor said he finds the downward trend in deaths, cases and hospitalizations related to COVID encouraging, but also reiterated that the pandemic is real and ongoing.
“Since we’re not out of the woods yet, I will continue to wear a mask, and I encourage all Montanans to do the same to protect themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors,” he said.
In a joint statement Democratic leaders Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, criticized Gianforte’s decision saying it endangers the health and safety of Montanans. “By passing the buck on public health, Governor Gianforte is putting Montana businesses and workers in an impossible position and undercutting our economic recovery.”
The newly seated Republican governor announced the news as he signed his first bill into law.
Senate Bill 65, sponsored by Great Falls Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, protects businesses, churches, hospitals and nonprofits from civil liability if someone gets sick or dies from COVID-19 contracted on-site.
“We are making great strides in combating this public health and economic pandemic. And SB65 will help in those efforts,” Gianforte said.
The bill was one of two conditions Gianforte outlined on his second day in office to remove the mask mandate. The other was getting the COVID vaccine to Montana’s most vulnerable populations.
As dictated by a July 15 executive order from former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, all Montanans aged five and older must wear masks when indoors in counties with more than four covid cases.
As part of his efforts to expand vaccinations, Gianforte updated the state’s vaccination rollout for phase 1B to include all Montanans over the age of 70 and people ages 16-69 with underlying health conditions, such as cancer and diabetes. Phase 1B also includes American Indians and other people of color who may be at elevated risk for COVID-19 complications. Gianforte estimated 250,000 people are qualified for the vaccine in phase 1B.
“As I’ve said, we will continue to provide incentives to protect the health and safety of Montanans, and we will emphasize personal responsibility over mandates,” Gianforte said.
As of Wednesday, the state had administered 149,263 doses of the vaccine, and 41,539 Montanans were fully immunized, according to the state’s Coronavirus dashboard. Gianforte said even with the uptick in vaccine doses from the federal government, it’s still not enough.
“We have proven over and over again just how effective we are in getting the vaccine out to the most vulnerable, and I will continue asking the federal government to send Montana our fair share of doses.”
Gianforte said when his time comes, he will get the vaccine and encourages others to do so as well.