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The day before Gov. Greg Gianforte announced that he will soon roll back his predecessor’s statewide mask mandate, the city of Whitefish passed an emergency ordinance to reinstate its own directive requiring residents and visitors to mask up

On Tuesday, during his first press conference as governor, Gianforte said the statewide mask mandate implemented by former Gov. Steve Bullock will be rescinded as soon as the COVID-19 vaccine is more widely available and businesses are given protections from lawsuits related to the pandemic. 

“We’re going to emphasize personal responsibility because I trust Montanans to make decisions for themselves,” he said. 

In anticipation that Gianforte would make such a move, the city of Whitefish passed an ordinance Monday night that would reinstate its own directive that people wear masks in public spaces for at least three months after the statewide mandate is rescinded. During the press conference, Gianforte said he would not stop local governments like Whitefish from instituting their own rules regarding masks. 

In a press release announcing the emergency ordinance, Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said his community is in a unique situation because it is a popular destination for people from across the country. 

“In Montana, it’s not a one size fits all approach to managing this pandemic,” Muhlfeld said. “We are a unique town with a large tourist base, and by taking this pre-emptive and proactive measure, we are hoping it will help keep our ski lifts turning and our businesses and schools open.” 

In many instances, the city of Whitefish has been ahead of the curve in responding to the coronavirus. In July the city adopted a mandatory-mask ordinance, a day before Bullock instituted a similar rule statewide. In recent weeks, the community has launched an aggressive marketing campaign asking people to be a “Friend of the Fish.” The message can be seen on banners around town and on more than 50 videos posted online featuring community members and local celebrities including Olympian free skier Maggie Voisin and father-son musicians John and Andy Dunnigan, and asking visitors and locals to wear masks and socially distance. 

Whitefish’s ordinance requires that all businesses take “reasonable measures to ensure that all employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, or other members of the public wear a face covering that covers their mouth and nose at all times while entering or remaining in any indoor spaces open to the public.” The ordinance also requires masks to be worn during outdoor events where social distancing is not possible. Children under the age of five are exempted from the mandate, as are people consuming food and drinks in bars and restaurants. 

Other communities around the state have also been preparing for changes coming out of the Capitol, and public health officers in Lewis and Clark and Missoula counties have indicated they will not change course regardless of new guidance from governor’s office. Missoula County Health Officer Ellen Leahy said Tuesday she will review what the governor has proposed, but added, “I as the health officer will not be recommending a change away from our local mask rule.” Montana Code Annotated gives local county health officers broad authority to protect public health, including mandating masks and closing businesses. 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.