HELENA — A business liability bill Gov. Greg Gianforte has called for as a step toward lifting Montana’s mask mandate has cleared its final hurdle in the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 65 shields businesses and other private entities from legal liability in the event someone is injured or dies after being exposed to COVID-19 on their premises. Its shield provisions don’t apply in situations legally classified as “gross negligence” or “willful and wanton misconduct.”

The measure passed its final reading in the state Senate Thursday and now heads to the governor.

Gianforte, a Republican, criticized the statewide mask mandate enacted by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock while campaigning in last year’s election. Since taking office, though, Gianforte has said he doesn’t want to lift the mandate until the state makes progress with COVID-19 vaccinations and lawmakers protect businesses from certain lawsuits related to the pandemic.

During his State of the State address last week, Gianforte said SB 65 checks that second box.

“I look forward to getting SB 65 to my desk so we can take that critical step toward getting Montana safely open for business, moving towards incentives and personal responsibility and away from impractical government mandates,” he said.

Some Democrats backed an earlier version of the bill, but that support has waned since it was amended to explicitly protect nursing homes, some of which have been the site of severe COVID-19 outbreaks.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, Great Falls Democrat Carlie Boland argued that businesses already have enough protection from unfair litigation.

“Not only is this bill unnecessary, it goes much further than addressing frivolous lawsuits and now absolves nursing homes and other health care facilities from their responsibilities to protect patients in their care,” Boland said.

Supporters note that the final version of the bill is not retroactive, meaning it doesn’t shield businesses from lawsuits over their activity earlier in the pandemic.

The bill passed its final procedural threshold in the House Tuesday on a 64-36 vote. It passed its final vote in the Senate Thursday 32-18.

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.