Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks at a press conference in the state Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021. Credit: Screenshot of Montana Public Affairs livestream

HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte announced new emergency directives Wednesday related to the COVID-19 pandemic, loosening some of the measures enacted by his predecessor, former-Gov. Steve Bullock.

While issuing a new state of emergency, Gianforte rolled back restrictions on crowd size and business hours. Under the previous statewide directives, bars and restaurants had been required to close at 10:00 p.m. and operate at 50% capacity. Public gatherings were limited to 25 people unless the event was outside or social distancing measures were being observed. 

“These new directives are clear. They are practical, they are common sense, and they’re easy to understand,” Gianforte said. “Gone are the 25 pages of overlapping and confusing directives. Our new directive is clear and it fits on three pages.

Starting on Friday, Jan. 15, Gianforte calls for people at public gatherings to follow social distancing guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Businesses and schools are to make “reasonable efforts” to follow their respective industry standards, the order reads, in line with local, state and federal guidelines on safety measures, including temperature checks, sanitizing, testing and isolation. 

The statewide mask mandate originally enacted by Bullock remains in effect. Gianforte has said he will consider repealing that when the Legislature passes liability protections for businesses and nonprofits and the vaccine is more widely distributed. According to the latest data from the CDC, 89,550 doses have been distributed to Montana and 44,063 have been administered. 

Local health officials weighed in following Gianforte’s announcement, reiterating that more rigorous local regulations are still in place. 

“That means the rules related to bars, casinos, restaurants, distilleries, and breweries closing at 10 p.m., capacity limits for certain businesses, and limits on group size to 25 or less do not change with the governor’s announcement,” said Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley. “We expect businesses and individuals to comply with these rules,” he continued, noting that COVID-19 remains dangerous.

Also on Wednesday, the Department of Public Health and Human Services announced 4,098 active cases across the state and 1,069 cumulative deaths.

In explaining why his administration is doing away with the more restrictive rules, Gianforte said he and his COVID-19 task force had received input from many business owners who felt Bullock’s orders were “too complex, confusing and difficult to implement.” 

“The fact is, we remain in the middle of a public health crisis and an economic crisis, and we will continue to make common-sense steps to more effectively confront both,” Gianforte said. “We are moving in the right direction, and I look forward to a day when we can all take off our masks, throw them in the trash and get on with our lives in a safe manner.”

Last week, Gianforte revised Montana’s vaccine distribution plan, removing essential workers from the upcoming Phase 1B and replacing them with anyone who is 70 or older, Native Americans, and people between the ages of 16 and 69 who have specific health conditions that make them especially at risk from the virus. 

With incoming shipments of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines expected in the coming weeks, Gianforte estimated that counties will be able to begin Phase 1B vaccinations during the week of Jan. 18. General Matthew Quinn, the head of the governor’s task force, said the state expects to receive roughly 6,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, with another 13,500 Moderna and Pfizer shots next week. Those are in addition to roughly 20,000 secondary doses that will be used to complete the vaccinations for frontline health care workers who began receiving inoculations in December and early January.

Gianforte said that Walgreens and CVS, which have contracts with the federal government to vaccinate residents and staff members of long-term care facilities, expect to have supplied first doses at nearly all of those location in the state by the end of January. He did not say how many of those vaccinations have currently been distributed.

Quinn and Gianforte reiterated that vaccine supplies remain limited at a national level, and that continuing to practice public health measures will help Montanans stay safe.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but the trend is encouraging,” said Gianforte, referring to new reported cases. “And I’m looking forward to this light at the end of the tunnel getting a little brighter.”

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. 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.