Montana Capitol. Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

HELENA — Lawmakers on the Joint Rules Committee met Wednesday to pass proposed amendments for the upcoming legislative session, but declined to include the most proactive public health measures introduced by committee members as COVID-19 continues to sweep the state.

In several party-line votes, Republicans rejected proposed rule changes introduced by Democrats that would have delayed the session until vaccines are widely available or allowed for the session to be conducted entirely virtually. A measure to require that masks be worn inside the state Capitol and that lawmakers maintain six feet of personal distance, introduced by Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, also failed along party lines. 

Legislators did approve rule changes to allow for remote participation and the creation of a COVID-19 Response Panel comprising the leadership of both chambers. The latter amendment, brought by Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, authorizes the panel to “exercise authority over all aspects of legislative business that are impacted by the COVID-19 health emergency,” including in-person participation rules for members of the public and legislators. The decisions of the panel would not require approval of all legislators.

“We’re going to get through this. It’s not going to be unharmed. I mean, this is an epidemic, so nobody can say that nobody’s going to be harmed,” Ellsworth said. “What this allows us to do is be responsible, take appropriate measures and be fluid with the situation … this allows us to get things done immediately and, you know what, God bless us for taking on this challenge.”

Ellsworth’s proposal does not require adherence to public health guidelines that are now commonplace, such as mask wearing and temperature checks, many of which have been strongly recommended by the Lewis and Clark City-County Board of Health

Democrats dismissed the committee’s actions Wednesday as insufficient given the severity of the pandemic.

“Montana workers and business owners need concrete measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from the Capitol into their communities, not a politicized response that does not take any real action, said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott in a statement after the committee adjourned Wednesday afternoon. “This building belongs to Montanans, and they deserve to know what the Legislature will do to keep them safe and healthy as they engage with their elected representatives during the upcoming session.”

The amendments will be voted on by the entirety of the Legislature after it convenes on Jan. 4. Republican leaders have not explicitly said that they intend to allow lawmakers to participate virtually before the rules for the new session are adopted, meaning that all legislators may be required to initially appear at the state Capitol in person.

The Joint Rules Committee voted on the measures after listening to an hour of nearly unanimous public comment, during which more than a dozen residents from across the state called on elected officials to require the wearing of masks during the session, follow basic public health guidelines, or even hold the entire session virtually to better protect lawmakers, staff and the public.

“We’re not asking you to manage arterial lines, ventilators, complex infusions or electronic medical charting,” said Loni Conley, a registered nurse and Democrat who recently lost her race to represent House District 96. “We are asking you to figure out a communication method other than in-person for the time being. You can do this.”

Residents and lawmakers from Helena repeatedly said that the city’s health care capacity could be overwhelmed if in-person participation in the session leads to a spike in cases. 

“We are testing more than 200 people a day in Helena,” said Jill Steeley, CEO of PureView Health Center, adding that the clinic has had to hire 14 additional staff members to address the increased need. “We are completely overwhelmed, and as the cases in our community increase, we will eventually become more overwhelmed.”

Republican lawmakers were firm in asserting that by bypassing Democrats’ proposals and delegating authority to the leadership panel, everyone involved in the session will be able to participate through their method of preference.

“If you want to participate in person, come on down to Helena. If you want to wear a mask when you do that, you bet. Put a mask on,” said Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell. “If you want to participate from wherever you are and you’re going to call in, heck, we’re probably even going to provide that. This is about personal choice and freedom.”

Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte recently communicated with lawmakers about how his staff plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the governor’s office, specifically, through “commonsense” measures. According to a copy of the letter provided to Montana Free Press, visitors will be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks, which will be offered at points of entry. Social distancing and temperature checks for staff and visitors will also be implemented, as will regular, frequent testing of staff members. Gianforte also said that approval of indoor events at the Capitol rotunda and common spaces will be paused until March 1.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare and criminal justice systems, including public health matters such as substance use disorders and mental health care. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.