HELENA – Members of the public encouraging legislators to follow Lewis and Clark County public health measures including masking, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings coincided with protesters calling for a loosening of those regulations and a mask-free state outside of the Capitol as the 67th regular session of the Montana Legislature convened Monday morning.
Helena Democratic Socialists of America co-chair Bonnie Lambert was one of about 15 protesters associated with the Helena Solidarity Network who gathered outside the Capitol in fluorescent yellow vests. Lambert was participating in what she called a “silent, static vigil” to encourage compliance with the county’s COVID-19 health guidance.
“We decided to throw up a picket line here to emphasize to [legislators] that they’re welcome in our community, but they really need to follow our rules,” Lambert said. “Our health is at risk when they meet unprotected at close quarters [in] large groups of people. They leave the building and go out into our communities and shop, eat, drink … and put us at even greater risk.”
Lambert said she’s also concerned about legislators picking up the virus during the session and taking it back to their home communities.
Members of the Helena Solidarity Network silently held signs inscribed with pleas like “Hey wear the damn mask” and “I wear a mask why don’t you?”
The other, slightly larger, crowd protesting at the Capitol today included individuals carrying “Trump 2020” and “Don’t Tread On Me” flags interspersed with signs printed with slogans including “MASKS SPREAD FEAR — Jesus Says: Fear Not” and “Stop the steal”— an apparent reference to the 2020 presidential election.
A woman carrying the latter sign, who declined to share her name, said she’d come to Helena from Billings for the start of the session. She’d written “in honor of Kevin Flock” on her sign to recognize a Billings man and enthusiastic Trump supporter who died, “actually from COVID,” she said. She added that she worries that people wearing masks are “literally killing themselves off because of bad air intake.” No reputable evidence supports that theory.
Other protesters frustrated with public health measures called for restaurants and theaters to fully re-open.
Although there was visible tension between the two groups, there wasn’t much in the way of direct exchange or conversation between them.
Changes inspired by COVID-19 were in evidence around the Capitol, including touchless electronic temperature check stations at the building’s entrances, informational coronavirus signage, and Plexiglas partitions installed at the information desk where Capitol staffers interface with the public. Hand sanitizer dispensers and stashes of disposable masks are ubiquitous throughout the building.
The spaces outside the Senate and House chambers are perhaps slightly less populous than in years past, as some members of the legislative services staff have decided, at least for the time being, to work remotely to lessen their risk of contracting the virus.
Inside the House and Senate chambers, the layout remains largely the same, with legislators installed in their usual seating arrangements, meaning they’re in relatively close quarters. Most legislators opted to be sworn in in person, rather than remotely.
Both chambers hosted mostly full galleries. “Must we wear a mask in there?” one member of the public who declined to be named asked a sergeant-at-arms regulating the flow of observers into the House’s gallery.
“Unless you have an issue with health,” the sergeant-at-arms replied.
“What if we have other issues?” the man responded. He proceeded maskless into the packed gallery, where he joined other members of the public ranging from 2 years old to 70-plus, also largely unmasked.
In the Senate chamber, Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, told the gallery to quiet down after observers shouted “open it up” and “defend our rights.”
Whether either group of protesters plans to continue their efforts as the session continues into its first week remains to be seen.
Mara Silvers, Chris Aadland and Eric Dietrich contributed reporting.
This story’s headline and text were revised Jan. 5 to correct overstatements about interactions between the two rallies. The overstatements were misinterpretations inserted in the editing process.
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