Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at a July 2, 2020 press briefing. Credit: MPAN

HELENA — As governors in a number of states turn to mask mandates amid a renewed surge of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Steve Bullock said in a Thursday press conference that he isn’t prepared at this point to take a similar step in Montana, preferring instead to work with business groups in an effort to promote voluntary compliance with health guidance suggesting masks are a vital tool for checking the virus’s spread.

Even so, Bullock chided the public for failing to do a better job adhering to mask-wearing and social-distancing guidance and urged residents to be more conscientious going into the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Montanans “have let their guard down,” he said, citing approximately 70 cases he said epidemiologists have tied to weddings and bar attendance.

“As Montanans are mingling in larger groups without social distancing and without wearing a mask, we are seeing more of these outbreaks from group settings,” he said.

Bullock’s comments come as governors in states including Nevada, Oregon and Kansas have issued orders that require face coverings in indoor and some outdoor public spaces.

At least some local governments in Montana are considering similar steps. In Missoula, for example, Mayor John Engen and the county’s three commissioners asked the county health officer June 30 to require face coverings in health department-licensed businesses. In Helena, city and county officials held a July 1 press conference to issue what the Independent Record described as an “ultimatum” urging compliance with masking and social distancing guidance.

Additionally, Crow Tribal Chairman Alvin Not Afraid Jr. has issued an executive order that, in part, requires people to wear face masks and maintain six feet of distance from one another within reservation boundaries.

In some parts of Montana, however, local officials are taking a lighter touch, limiting themselves to public health messaging.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported July 1, for example, that Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley had expressed reservations about a mask mandate.

“Just having a rule doesn’t mean you have universal compliance, or a way to enforce the rule once it’s passed,” Kelley said, according to the Chronicle.

In Teton County, the city of Choteau issued a July 2 statement signed by Mayor Chris Hindoien, noting the county now has five confirmed COVID-19 cases and urging residents to take precautions going into the holiday.

“It’s easy to make fun of someone who is wearing a mask, whether it is the first time they are wearing one or they have from the onset,” Hindoien wrote. “Personal responsibility shouldn’t be mocked by anyone, it should be respected.”

Even if he were to issue a statewide mandate, Bullock noted Thursday, enforcement of his public health orders ultimately falls to local authorities. As such, he said, the most effective way to encourage mask wearing is less government fiat than pushing to make the practice “socially accepted.”

“I hope that we don’t have to get to the point of a mandate,” Bullock said. “But if we do, we have to make sure everyone’s on board in order for it to be successful.”

The governor was joined at Thursday’s press conference by Montana Chamber of Commerce President Todd O’Hair, who said the Montana Tavern Association and other hospitality groups have been working with their members to promote mask use.

“We take the threat of COVID-19 seriously,” O’Hair said. “Not only for the impacts the disease has on our employees, but also for our customers and the economy as a whole.”

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Bullock also said Montana’s per capita COVID-19 statistics remain low compared to other states, even as the more than 200 new cases reported this week push the state past the 1,000-case mark. He said he expects more cases to be reported as epidemiologists trace contacts around the newly reported cases, but maintained that Montana remains in better position than states like Florida, Texas and California that are returning to more stringent public health directives.

“We don’t have to be like these other states and take steps backward if we raise our guard,” Bullock said. “And one of the most important ways we can raise that guard is to make wearing a mask a habit.”

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Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.