Gianforte: Montana will not impose mask or vaccine mandates

Gov warns of delta, touts rising vaccination rate, bashes Biden for Afghanistan withdrawal and more

By: and - August 24, 2021 5:46 pm

Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks at a press conference in Helena on August 24, 2021 (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

Amid rising COVID-19 delta variant cases locally and across the country, Gov. Greg Gianforte on Tuesday encouraged Montanans to get vaccinated, but he said emphatically that the state would not be shutting down businesses or imposing vaccine or mask mandates.

In his first scheduled press conference at the Capitol in months, Gianforte acknowledged the heightened contagiousness of the delta variant, which accounts for 90 percent of COVID-19 samples sequenced in the state. He said repeatedly that unvaccinated Montanans were at greater risk of serious illness, hospitalization and even death from the virus.

“There couldn’t be a more important time to get vaccinated,” he said. “The vaccines have been researched, they’ve been rigorously tested, they are safe and they work.”

However, he said that the decision to get vaccinated needs to arise from a conversation between an individual and their doctor, not from a government order or a news story.

“Montanans trust their medical provider,” Gianforte said. “When it comes down to it though, people who are hesitant to get the vaccine don’t want a lecture. They don’t respond to sanctimony or virtue signaling.”

Montana has made slow progress in getting vaccines in arms. Just this week, the state announced it had fully immunized 50 percent of eligible Montanans, but officials say the daily vaccine administration rate is increasing.

“It’s a higher rate than we’ve seen all summer,” the governor said. “4,300 Montanans received the vaccine this weekend.”

Medical experts say a region needs a 70 percent to 90 percent vaccination rate to achieve herd immunity, and despite the progress, Montana lags behind many other states — even some much larger ones, like New York — en route to that goal. Missoula County has the highest vaccination rate in the state, at above 60 percent, while Garfield County has the lowest, at just over 20 percent. Flathead County, which has the highest number of active cases in the state at 690, has a full immunization rate of 41 percent.

Cases in Montana began to steadily rise in July following a summer plateau, and they haven’t tapered off since. The seven-day average for new cases has grown from 50 on July 1 to nearly 400 on Tuesday.

Montana reported more than 700 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, the highest daily case count since winter, and a weekly report released by the state department of public health showed that hospitals are increasingly struggling with occupancy as the delta variant fills beds across the state.

The hospitalization occupancy report, compiled and released by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, showed there were only 870 available staffed beds across the state as of the beginning of the week. Of Montana’s 10 large hospitals, six reported that from 70 percent to 90 percent of staffed beds were occupied, and Kalispell Regional reported it was more than 90 percent occupied with only four available staffed beds.

Gianforte on Tuesday said the state’s collective efforts were focused on administering as many vaccines as possible and providing resources to hospitals and medical providers to deal with the delta variant. However, he pre-empted any talk of renewing a statewide mask or vaccine mandate.

“The state of Montana will not impose mandates,” he said. “One of the things we learned over the past 18 months is government mandates don’t work.”

Gianforte signed several bills this session that limit government responses to public health emergencies. Two in particular have especially broad implications: HB257, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, effectively blocked enforcement of local mask mandates and business closures, and required health boards to get approval from elected officials on a variety of matters; HB702, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, prohibits vaccine requirements, with some exceptions for hospitals and congregate-care settings.

The web of new public health laws has left local officials scrambling to make sure they’re in compliance while still working to stave off the virus. While Gianforte bemoaned Tuesday that public health has become “politicized,” COVID-19 has proven over and over again to be a political flashpoint. Montana’s school boards, which are exempt from HB257, have held a number of emotional debates around mask mandates as the school year approaches. And as Gianforte spoke on Tuesday, the Missoula City-County Board of Health met to address concerns that its quarantine protocol for close contacts of a person who tests positive for COVID-19, which is different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, may conflict with HB702, which specifically bans discrimination based on vaccine status. The board ultimately decided to keep its current policy, which follows CDC guidelines.

Gianforte began the press conference by denouncing the Biden Administration’s withdrawal of U.S. troops and citizens from Afghanistan, calling it a “foreign policy disaster and humanitarian crisis,” a “poorly prepared and rushed calamity,” regardless of whether a person thinks the U.S. should have been in the country in the first place.

He said the withdrawal endangered the lives of U.S. nationals and Afghan allies who had aided the American military occupation, but stopped short of making any specific commitments to welcome refugees into the state. A small number of refugees are set to resettle in Missoula, according to the International Rescue Committee.

“The priority right now has to be getting our citizens and allies to safety,” Gianforte said. “It’s then going to be a decision for local communities to decide how to relocate those people. I think we have an obligation there.”

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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.

Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .