New law nullifies mask mandates

Gov. Gianforte has signed HB257, banning enforcement of local COVID-19 emergency health orders

By: - May 7, 2021 4:38 pm

Face mask, , liquid soap, protective gloves and protective eyeglasses on black background (Getty Images, illustration)

Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed legislation effectively invalidating local mask mandates and other virus-related public health measures that counties and cities have adopted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost immediately, Lewis and Clark County announced that it would no longer enforce its mask mandate. County health officer Drenda Niemann said in a press release that she still urges community members to continue to weak masks inside and receive COVID-19 vaccines.

“This bill effectively removes nearly 100 years of basic, preventative public health measures used to contain and help prevent the spread of infectious disease,” Niemann said in a statement.

House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, was one of several bills this session meant to limit the ability of local health officials to impose restrictions on the public and on private businesses. It in part supersedes House Bill 121, another piece of legislation signed this session which required county and city commissioners to sign off on many of the decisions that a county board of health or health officer might make.

Hinkle and other Republicans presented the efforts as ways to shield businesses from government overreach — though at the expense, critics warned, of public health.

Specifically, HB257 says no ordinance adopted by a local government can “compel a private business to deny a customer of the private business access to the premises or access to goods or services” or “deny a customer of a private business the ability to access goods or services provided by the private business.” The law also prevents local governments from assessing fees, revoking licenses or bringing civil or criminal charges against businesses for noncompliance with such orders.

The provisions of the bill do not apply to persons “confirmed to have a communicable disease.” It also borrows some language from HB121, requiring the health board to recommend to a local governing body adoption of wastewater and sewage rules and appointment of a county health officer.

The bill was initially transmitted to the governor in April, but he returned it with amendments to protect the state from litigation and ensure that county health boards can still enforce non-pandemic rules like health codes.

Even before its signature, HB257 had caused confusion with local health offices. The Gallatin County Board of Health met this week to recommend changes to the city-county COVID restrictions, but ultimately didn’t vote on anything because HB257 also prohibits local boards of health from altering emergency rules on their own.

So, citing HB121 and what was then the probable enactment of HB257, the board decided not to take any action and let local COVID rules lapse on their own. Gallatin’s Phase 2 reopening rules, which concern gathering sizes, restaurant capacity and so on, will expire May 10, while the now-unenforceable face mask requirement will expire May 27.

Several local entities had adopted their own mask mandates with the expectation that Gianforte would end the state’s mask requirement, which he did early into his term.

“The Gallatin City-County Health Department will continue to strongly urge citizens to practice all of the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that we know help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” a statement from the county reads. Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley, who is set to resign in June, could not be reached for comment.

The city of Whitefish, Missoula County and others still have mask mandates on the books that will no longer be enforced.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.