Montana candidates split over mask mandate
Montana Public Radio
August 19, 2020
Montana’s mask mandate is now just over a month old. While public health experts and studies say masks are key to slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, some people are pushing-back against the rule. Candidates for governor and attorney general also have opposing views on the role of state government during the pandemic.
Opposition to masks and the state’s mandate requiring them has popped up in Montana and around the country throughout the summer, even as health officials continue to urge people to wear them to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Scott Wetzel, an associate professor of immunobiology at the University of Montana, says mask-wearing is critical to stopping others from getting sick.
"It’s protecting you from infection. It’s really the best thing that we have right now."
But some, like Kyle Voigtlander, aren’t convinced. Voigtlander helped organize and spoke at an anti-mask mandate rally at the Capitol in Helena at the end of July that drew about 50 people. He’s planning another one in Bozeman later this week.
More than 3,700 people have signed an online petition created by a group called "Montanans Unmasked" asking the governor to make face coverings optional.
“I’m anti-mask. I’ve always been anti-mask," Voigtlander said. "I knew from the beginning that the COVID-19 outbreak that happened wasn’t a huge deal."
Voigtland doesn’t think the virus is as dangerous as public health officials say. He says Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask mandate is an overreach, unconstitutional and that wearing a mask should be a personal choice.
"You know, where your fear begins isn’t where my rights end."
Gov. Steve Bullock (center) with Crow Nation Chairman AJ Not Afraid (R) and officials from the Indian Health Services at a community testing event in Crow Agency May 27, 2020.
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University of Montana professor Wetzel said masks are an important tool to combat the virus and studies show that wearing a mask reduces how far respiratory droplets can travel from six feet to less than one foot.
Wetzel says that Montana’s COVID-19 case numbers over the past month have started to trend downward since the mask mandate was implemented.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends people wear masks in public to prevent spreading the disease.
The novel coronavirus has led to more than 170,000 deaths in the United States and 84 deaths in Montana.
The face-covering rules have drawn out differences in how political candidates view the role of government in a public health crisis.
Austin Knudsen, the Republican candidate for attorney general, declined to be interviewed for this story. However, in an interview with conservative political blog Northwest Liberty News in July, Knudsen said he deals with the mask mandate as county attorney for Roosevelt County. Knudsen said he and the local sheriff emphasize individual responsibility for their constituents.
“If you feel like you’re at risk, if you feel like you shouldn’t be out, well then you shouldn’t be out. If you feel like you should wear a mask, then you should wear a mask. The problem comes when you start telling me or someone else what I have to do because of your fear.”
Knudsen said the Montana law that allows for statewide health mandates, like the mask rule, is flawed. He told the blog that the state legislature should amend it and he questions whether parts of the law are constitutional.
If elected as attorney general, Knudsen said he’d "err in the side of freedom" if he had to defend the state’s mask mandate against a lawsuit.
Democrat Raph Graybill, Knudsen’s opponent for attorney general, said when it comes to mask-wearing, voluntary compliance wasn’t working and cases were growing at a rapid rate.
He said a mandate was necessary to protect public health and safety.
Gov. Steve Bullock's July 15 directive mandated masks in some Montana counties. The directive will end with the governor's declared state of emergency.
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Graybill is governor Bullock’s chief legal counsel and said, not only is the mandate constitutional, but that the U.S. Constitution asks states to make rules like this one. He said the tenth amendment grants this power to states.
"For 200 years, the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court have required states to take active steps to fight communicable disease, and to fight its spread."
Graybill said the mandate encourages education over fines. He said if elected attorney general, he would offer support to local public health officers and county attorneys needing to enforce the mandate.
The Democrat and Republican in the race for Montana’s top executive seat also differ in their response to the state’s mask rule. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, a Democrat running for governor against Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, stands by Bullock’s statewide mandate.
“It is a policy that we need in place to not only protect the health and safety of Montanans, but everyone wants the economy to be healthy as well. So we can’t have a healthy economy if we don’t have people who are healthy."
Cooney said the discussion around masks evolved as more research became available. At the beginning of the pandemic, masks were not as widely encouraged as they are now by the CDC.
Some health care providers, including the Montana Nurses Association, called for mandatory mask use before the governor's office put its mandate in place.
Cooney said when state officials first started talking about masks, the goal was to raise public awareness, not require them. But he says not enough people were wearing the masks and it wasn’t enough for government to just encourage use.
"The mandate did increase the acceptance and use of masks, no question about it," Cooney said. "Not for everybody, but it has increased it."
Cooney said he would continue the mandate as governor if public health experts continue to recommend masks.
Republican Greg Gianforte said that he doesn’t want to second guess decisions that state officials have made up to this point. When asked if he would repeal or keep the mask mandate, he said that's hypothetical.
"But I believe a distinction would be that I’d focus more on personal responsibility. I trust Montanans to make the right decisions for themselves as opposed to edicts from Helena."
He said the state should put out guidelines and offer assistance to help people deal with the pandemic, and that extra precautions are needed for people who are living in long-term care facilities or those who have weakened immune systems.
"The guidelines would probably, would be, more stringent in those situations than they would be for like a restaurant on Main Street."
Gianforte said he would trust local governments to make decisions for their own towns using guidance published by the CDC.
Two counties in Montana have yet to report a single case of COVID-19. And 26 counties have fewer than 4 active cases, meaning they don’t have to adhere to the statewide mask mandate.
Montana’s statewide mask mandate is set to expire when Montana is no longer in a state of emergency. It’s not clear when that will be or if it will come before Election Day.