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Bullock orders statewide mask use
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Bullock orders statewide mask use

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Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday issued a statewide order requiring the use of a face covering in some settings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

While Bullock hoped people would acknowledge the science that masks can prevent the spread of the virus, he said not enough are taking the precaution.

"Unfortunately it has become clear we need to do more, and that asking folks to do the right thing just isn't always going to be enough," Bullock said in a press conference Wednesday.

Bullock called masks a "modest imposition" that can save lives and keep the economy open.

The order is effective immediately and applies to counties with four or more active coronavirus cases. It will expire at the end of the statewide declaration of emergency. About two dozen counties out of the state's 56 had four or more active cases Wednesday.

The directive requires businesses, government offices and other indoor spaces that are open to the public to make sure their employees, contractors, volunteers, customers and other members of the public wear a face covering.

The directive also applies to outdoor activities attended by 50 people or more when social distancing is either not possible or not followed. It extends to residents and visitors to the state.

Businesses must post signs that masks are required for those ages 5 and up. Masks will not be required when consuming food or drinks in establishments that offer those products for sale.

The mandate comes as Montana again set a record for the number of COVID-19 cases added in a single day, with 145 reported Wednesday. The state now has 1,147 active cases and 37 hospitalizations.

Thirty-four people in Montana have died of COVID-19. The state went from 55 active cases to more than a thousand over the last month and the total cumulative cases statewide, 2,096, have doubled since the start of July.

"Inability to control the spread of COVID-19 endangers vulnerable Montanans. It endangers businesses who want to keep their doors open and hospitals who need the capacity to treat both COVID-19 patients and all others needing medical care," Bullock said. "Too many continue to congregate in larger gatherings where a single person can spread COVID-19 to many others and too few are wearing face coverings in public settings where social distancing isn't possible."

The governor also pointed to business grants that owners can apply for in order to purchase things like masks, hand sanitizers and more. He also announced the state will use $75 million in CARES Act funding to aid schools in a proposed fall reopening.

Also Wednesday, the governor said the state may have to pause surveillance testing because the out-of-state laboratory Montana contracts with, Quest Diagnostics, has a backlog. Tests for asymptomatic people and from mass testing events, which Bullock has made a part of his testing proposal as a part of reopening the economy, are sent to out-of-state labs, which already had long turnaround times of seven days or more. 

Jim Murphy, the head of the state's communicable disease bureau, said Wednesday that the state's own public health lab in Helena can still process all the tests it receives for symptomatic people. That lab runs about 1,200-1,300 tests a day but is near capacity, Murphy said.

Both Bullock and Murphy said the state is exploring other options both for contract labs to run asymptomatic tests and ways to increase capacity in-state. Bullock cited frustrations with the lack of sufficient testing support from the federal government, but said it would not stop the state from looking for its own solutions. 

Montana is not currently able to process pool or batch testing, but Murphy said the state is looking at options. Pooled testing is where the tests from several individual are combined and run as one single test to reduce demand on lab equipment. If a pooled test comes back positive, individuals are then re-tested.

Several local governments had implemented their own mask mandates before Wednesday, including Missoula and Big Horn counties, as well as the town of Whitefish. The state mandate supersedes local ones — such as Missoula's mask requirement for people 12 and older — though local governments can put more restrictive measures into place if they choose to.

Gallatin County tried to hold a meeting on an emergency mask order Tuesday, but it was delayed until Friday after people filled the meeting space beyond capacity and refused to watch and wait to testify in an overflow room. Many opposed the mandate and held signs saying things like "My body, my choice" with a "no" sign over the word "mask" and the addition of "Vote Trump 2020."

The Butte-Silver Bow Board of Health was also set to take up the issue of a mask mandate Wednesday. The Montana Hospital Association had previously endorsed the use of face masks, and said Wednesday it backed the governor's directive.

The World Health Organization and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have both said the use of masks or cloth face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible slows the spread of the virus.

The canceled meeting in Bozeman highlights how wearing a mask has become a political issue even in the face of science that shows their effectiveness.

"There's no reason this needs to be political, because COVID-19 isn't political," Bullock said. " … Coronavirus doesn't care if you're Republican or Democrat or an Independent. It doesn't care about theories or speculations or projection. It's an unthinking parasite that can affect you either way and it relies on you to spread it to others."

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he worried the mask order may lead to an increase in calls to the 911 dispatch center.

Gootkin also told the Associated Press there had been no arrests statewide for violating other public health directives, such as the previous stay-at-home order, and he did not think enforcement of the mask mandate would be "any different."

The mask mandate is enforceable by local public health agencies and law enforcement, though Bullock urged them to focus on education and warnings and to only resort to penalties and other measures for the most egregious and repeat violations.

Businesses may refuse entry or service if people refuse to wear masks, and may rely on law enforcement officers if a person refuses to leave, Bullock said. Local businesses around the state have already put into place their own mask requirements, as have national companies like Walmart, Best Buy and Costco. About 25 other states and Washington, D.C., have a statewide mask order.

The Missoulian reported earlier this week that some business owners said their employees had been berated by customers upset about mask requirements, while other operations flaunted that county's orders with signs on their doors scoffing the rules with references to health privacy laws.

There's a long record of the United States and Montana supreme courts recognizing the state's authority to impose quarantines, mandatory vaccination orders and other measures to prevent the spread of diseases, Bullock said.

"An individual might think they have a constitutional right to get sick if they so choose, but they don't have a constitutional right to get other people sick," he said. " .… Our liberties are so, so important, but every liberty can be constrained at times for the greater good."

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