By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
HELENA – Gov. Greg Gianforte announced changes to the state’s COVID-19 approach in his first post-inauguration press conference on Jan. 5, including alterations to the vaccine distribution schedule as well as the rescindment of the mask mandate.
“We will issue new directives and guidance to replace the existing ones. There will be changes. Some guidance and directives will be revised,” the governor said.
Echoing promises from his campaign, Gianforte emphasized his central mission to addressing COVID-19: protecting the state’s most vulnerable populations. In implementing this principle, Gianforte announced revisions to former Gov. Steve Bullock’s vaccine distribution schedule, altering Phase 1B to include those ages 70-plus as well as those ages 16-69 who have specific health conditions. The former Phase 1B included people aged 75 years old or older, frontline essential workers, those residing in congregate care and correctional facilities and American Indians and other people of color who may be at elevated risk for COVID-19—roughly covering 90,000 Montanans.
Gianforte estimated that the revisions to Phase 1B would cover 250,000-300,000 people from Montana’s population, but noted that the uptake of the vaccine varies place-to-place and not everyone eligible will opt to receive it.
Gianforte also confirmed that he intends to lift the statewide mask mandate, which has been in effect since July, once a few conditions have been met.
“After we have increased vaccine distribution and after I have legislation on my desk that protects businesses, schools, places of worship and nonprofit organizations that follow guidelines from lawsuits, then we will rescind the current statewide mask mandate,” Gianforte said, clarifying that this timeline looks like weeks, not months.
While he did not specify what other regulations would change, he said news would be available within days.
“I believe providing incentives and promoting personal responsibility are more effective than imposing impractical mandates,” he said, later identifying such incentives to be the liability protections previously described.
Gianforte added that the state of emergency order, issued on March 12 by Bullock, gives broad discretion to local authorities, and that will remain the same.