Gov. Greg Gianforte did not inherit a blank slate in January 2021.
As he took his oath of office, Montana was emerging from its first devastating surge of coronavirus. The state’s death toll was ticking up every day. Mask mandates were in effect at the state and local level. Vaccines were not yet widely available. Businesses, public health officials and hospital workers struggled to navigate a constantly changing landscape. Political fissures in an already polarized country were deepening.
At a press conference during his first week in office, Gianforte signaled that addressing the pandemic was a top priority — and that his approach would be uniquely his own.
“There will be changes,” he said. “Some guidance and directives will be revised. Others will be removed entirely.”
Since then, the pandemic has shown the first-term Republican governor to be pragmatic, politically strategic and bullish on his philosophy of limited government. His playbook is consistent: Champion economic recovery and the available vaccines, tread lightly around Montanans’ steely sense of personal liberty and scale back the use of government power.
It is not reasonable to expect that any governor’s approach to the pandemic could have shut the door on COVID entirely. But emergencies offer a unique opportunity to observe political leadership in action. A year of handling the ongoing, ever-shifting pandemic has put Montana’s governor in the spotlight.
ENDING ‘THE ECONOMIC PANDEMIC’
Gianforte’s response to the pandemic, in line with his Montana Comeback Plan, has focused heavily on mitigating the economic fallout on business and industry, a strategy that has sometimes given short shrift to the recommendations of frustrated public health advocates.
“The pandemic continues,” Gianforte said in a recent interview. “It’s still affecting families, but in the process, we’ve gotten our economy going again and we’ve ended the economic pandemic that was created by the prior administration.”
In his second week in office, Gianforte eliminated statewide restrictions on business operations and social gatherings that former Gov. Steve Bullock implemented near the onset of the pandemic. In their place, Gianforte issued sparse directions: Social gatherings should follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while businesses and schools were to make “reasonable efforts” to follow “industry best practices” and public health guidance.
“We can reduce the burden on our small-business owners while simultaneously protecting the health of Montana workers and customers,” Gianforte said at the time. “These are not mutually exclusive.”
About a month later, Gianforte eliminated the Bullock-era indoor mask mandate for most counties soon after signing legislation to limit pandemic-related lawsuits against businesses. The mandate reversal came as federal health experts were doubling down on masking recommendations for indoor public spaces. Gianforte’s decision sparked blowback from local public health officials who were trying to give consistent guidance to businesses and consumers but struggled to make sense of the contradictory messaging coming from above.
Whatever criticism the governor might have faced, his prioritization of improving the state’s economy aligned with a priority of Republican voters nationally. During his first month in office, 56% of Republicans said they were more concerned about the economic effects of the pandemic than the public health consequences. Just 20% of Democrats agreed.
That partisan schism has persisted over the past year. Polling from the same study last month found that 59% of Republicans and 24% of Democrats weighted the economy over public health. Even as the omicron variant began to take root across the country, party affiliation mirrored another deep divide in how people planned to respond: 65% of Republicans said they would continue normal activity as much as possible, while the same portion of Democrats said they would change their normal routines to prioritize personal safety and public health.
“Republicans have wanted schools to be open. They have wanted businesses to be open. They think that that is part of our health as a society,” said Jessi Bennion, a political science professor at Montana State University. For Democrats, she said, “it’s more about COVID numbers, how hospitals are doing, how many people are vaccinated … As far as his leadership, [Gianforte] is leading in the way that Republicans want him to lead. And they would consider that a success.”
Lifting restrictions and rolling back public health requirements were policies many Republican lawmakers championed during the 2021 session.
“The COVID virus had the people of Montana shut-in. The administration at that time had passed rules or implemented rules that made it so people couldn’t move about,” Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, said in a speech on the Senate floor last April. “When we came to the election, the people of Montana made it clear that they did not like the tyranny that was taking place.”
The policies passed by the Legislature and implemented by the governor, he said, helped businesses to stay standing.
“We’re not afraid, we’re not scared, we’re not locked in our houses,” Smith said. “We’re out here.”
While Gianforte’s actions corresponded with a resurgence in Montana’s economy, it’s difficult to pinpoint how much credit should go to the governor’s policies.
Economist Patrick Barkey, Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, said continuing business restrictions might have put a damper on the rebound of consumer spending. But generally, he pointed to the federal emergency relief spending of 2021 as a key reason for why the country’s economy came booming back.
“I give credit to Congress and the president for pushing that through. I think it was timely and it had an impact,” Barkey said. “Obviously, the governor of Montana doesn’t have that kind of money to throw around.”
From Gianforte’s perspective, the decision to roll back mandates and restrictions was in line with his overall plan to unfetter the state economy. If he had to do it over again, he said, he would have moved faster.
“In hindsight, mandates don’t work,” Gianforte said. “And I should have gotten rid of them sooner.”
VACCINATIONS: ‘THE BEST PROTECTION’
Since his first press conference, Gianforte unequivocally affirmed the efficacy, safety and logic of vaccination as a personal and public health strategy, in stark contrast to the ambivalence or outright dismissal communicated by Republican officials elsewhere.
In the early months of 2021, he pushed the federal government to send more vaccines to Montana and made them available to groups at heightened medical risk. A few months later, he opened the door for any adult to receive a vaccine starting in April, a faster timeline than in many other states.
These steps helped earn him support from the Montana Hospital Association, one of the most prominent health organizations in the state.
“We struck the right tone on how to ensure that vaccines were made available to those that were most vulnerable, to those that were first responders, health care workers and teachers,” said MHA CEO and president Rich Rasmussen, adding that the governor’s vaccine policy was one reason why MHA supported his decision to reverse the state mask mandate. “He and his team have stood in the gap to support hospitals … the things that hospitals have needed or they have requested, they have been supportive and have delivered on this.”
Gianforte has also been frank about his own decision to get vaccinated as soon as he was eligible and, more recently, to get a booster shot. His pro-vaccine message hasn’t wavered even as vaccine opposition persists across swaths of Montana, bolstered by state lawmakers, grassroots organizations such as Montanans for Vaccine Choice and influential conservative figures including Montana Daily Gazette publisher Jordan Hall, who in an April post on the far-right website criticized Gianforte for publicly promoting the fact that he was vaccinated.
“Ultimately, what we do know is that vaccination is the best protection from the virus,” Gianforte told MTFP. “Although we won’t mandate vaccines, we are encouraging Montanans to talk with their health care adviser and get vaccinated.”
But Gianforte’s overt support for vaccines comes with a degree of political risk. Polling from late December reported that 36% of Republicans nationally are uncertain or unwilling about getting the vaccine, compared to 15% of Democrats.
In Montana, 55% of the eligible population is vaccinated, a rate that sits near the middle of rates in neighboring Mountain West states. When asked, Gianforte did not say whether he thought his vaccine messaging has been resonating with Republican constituents.
“I represent all Montanans, not just people of one party,” Gianforte said. “We’re going to continue to encourage all Montanans to talk to their health care adviser and get vaccinated.”
The message has been nearly identical across Gianforte’s public media appearances, including an October interview with conservative radio show Montana Talks.
“The statistics are pretty clear. Of all the people that went into the hospital here since April, with COVID, about 90%, nine out of 10, had not been vaccinated,” Gianforte told broadcaster Aaron Flint. “My analysis is, these vaccines are safe and effective.”
Other Republican officials have said they support Gianforte’s efforts to remind Montanans vaccines are available, accessible, and voluntary.
“They’re ruggedly individualistic and independent-minded individuals,” said Senate President Mark Blasdel, speaking about the constituents of his Flathead Valley district during a May press conference. Blasdel said he appreciated the “not a top-down mandate approach on this. To let each individual decide on their individual health care decisions and how they wanted to view the vaccination at this time.”
THE BOUNDARIES OF PRO-VACCINE MESSAGING
In interviews for this story, public health advocates in Montana and nationally commended the consistency of Gianforte’s pro-vaccine stance.
“It’s a good tactic. Keeping it alive in the discourse is important,” said Eleanor Bergquist, an adviser with the U.S. branch of Resolve to Save Lives, a global health initiative working to combat the pandemic. “Reminding people that the leader, the governor, is vaccinated and promotes and encourages it. I think that that has value.”
But some public health experts in Montana, who declined to speak on the record in order to maintain their working relationship with state officials, said they wish the governor’s vaccine messaging would convey more urgency and conviction, as some other Republican elected officials have tried to do.
But the Gianforte administration has tread carefully around vaccine messaging that could spark political blowback. In November, Kaiser Health News and Montana Public Radio reported that the administration had removed explicit references to children from the state’s drafts of vaccine messaging in the spring of 2021, according to a former official at the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Gianforte told MTFP his administration “never ended any kind of campaign to kids” and reiterated that he believes parents are the best decision-makers for their children.
The state’s public service announcements still do not include any references to childhood vaccinations, despite Montana’s low rate of vaccine uptake in children between 5 and 11. But a DPHHS spokesman confirmed to MTFP that the state signed a contract in November with the Montana Medical Association to provide $200,000 in federal relief funds to MMA’s Your Best Shot campaign, which promotes childhood vaccination online and in television ads.
Despite being the largest single source of funding for the initiative, the DPHHS logo is not on any of the marketing materials. Asked why that was the case, MMA spokesperson Lauren Lewis said research has shown vaccine messages to be most effective “when coming straight from trusted local physicians and health care providers.”
In January, the state agency also provided $50,000 to a gift card incentive program, jointly funded with private insurance companies, to encourage people to get their first or second vaccine shot. The program was originally implemented with health care providers in Montana’s 15 counties with the lowest vaccination rates and offered $25-$50 gift certificates. DPHHS spokesman Jon Ebelt said the incentive program is now available to any health jurisdiction that wants to participate.
The Gianforte administration and DPHHS had not previously announced the state’s participation in the program.
The distance between Gianforte’s pro-vaccine stance and these hot-button subtopics — financial incentives and inoculations for young children — has contributed to the frustration expressed by some public health advocates. They say the governor’s cautious messaging on vaccines and his near-silence about indoor masking, which is strongly recommended by the CDC, feels altogether insufficient as the state tries to weather surging case numbers, hospitalizations and a death count that ticks up each day.
“This effort to get people vaccinated is probably the most important thing we’re doing,” said one public health expert who works for an organization that does business with the state and requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s not going to be solved by three sentences at the end of the press conference. It’s going to be solved by persistent, consistent efforts.”
“We are in a global pandemic,” said Vicky Byrd, head of the Montana Nurses Association. “Why are you not having weekly press calls and getting those public health nurses, doctors, epidemiologists — that’s their job — out in the forefront to talk about it?”
Gianforte holds closed-door weekly COVID briefings with DPHHS Director Adam Meier, the state’s acting lead medical officer Maggie Cook-Shimanek and the governor’s health care policy adviser Charlie Brereton, as well as other staff members from DPHHS and the state’s Disaster and Emergency Services agency.
Gianforte press secretary Brooke Stroyke has declined MTFP’s repeated requests to attend one of these meetings, citing the deliberative nature of the conversations, or to provide recordings or transcripts of the briefings. The governor’s office does release weekly briefing summaries to members of the press.
‘THEY’RE NOT THE KINGS AND QUEENS’
Pressed on why his administration hasn’t taken more steps to encourage and implement public health precautions or provide firm direction on how to limit viral transmission in public settings, Gianforte offers a refrain as reliable as Montana’s sky is big: personal responsibility.
The phrase encapsulates Gianforte’s brand of libertarian-leaning conservatism, one that observers say resonates with the let-me-be political philosophy of many Montanans.
“He sounds like he has Republican ideals and ideas about how government should be run, about how much power a government should have,” Bennion said. “[T]hat messaging is very powerful and it works in a state like Montana.”
Putting the ball in Montanans’ court to protect their own health, or not, is a sharp strategic difference between Gianforte’s administration and that of former governor Bullock, a distinction the current governor embraces.
“I’m a big believer in limited government. And I think that’s really the juxtaposition you see here,” Gianforte said. “My position is I trust Montanans with their health and that of their families. The other side wants a limited set of very smart elites, off in some distant place, to run their lives for them. And that’s the contrast.”
For some public health officials, Gianforte’s emphasis on personal responsibility contains a pitfall. It undercuts the collective action they say is necessary to protect public — not just individual — health.
“When it comes right down to it, your right to swing your fist doesn’t extend to my nose,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. As with laws that deter drunk driving and regulate food safety in restaurants, Frieden suggested the government has a role in protecting the public.
“There are ways in which our fates really do depend on one another. And I know we’ve gotten into very kind of unpleasant political discussions on these things,” he said. “But we do really have very important reliance on others. And that’s just the reality.”
At the local, state and federal level, Gianforte has vocally opposed pandemic mandates at every turn. In addition to rolling back the state mask mandate, he broadly restricted the authority of local public health boards and officials by signing House Bill 257. Among other things, the bill effectively prohibits local officials from enforcing mask mandates in public spaces or businesses.
The governor also signed House Bill 702, one of the most sweeping restrictions on vaccine mandates anywhere in the country. While that legislation is tied up in court, Gianforte has also championed Montana’s legal challenges to the Biden administration’s vaccine requirements.
Last year, Gianforte and DPHHS Director Meier also issued an emergency rule, citing sources that ranged from scientific papers to opinion pieces, instructing local school boards to take parental input into account when drafting school masking rules. The memo said science about the efficacy of masking in schools was “not conclusive.”
Soon after, the Montana Nurses Association blasted the rule’s recommendations as based on “junk science.” A letter signed by 18 state epidemiologists criticized the department’s involvement in issuing the directive, saying some of its claims were “misleading and false.”
Gianforte stands by his belief in vesting power and authority in private citizens over public health professionals, even while he said those local officials have done “yeoman’s work.”
Asked if he agrees that professional specializations and expertise are useful for setting standards and informing decisions, Gianforte said his philosophy can be understood through the lens of a tech company and its customers.
“If you were my customer, absolutely, you should tell me how to run the tech company,” Gianforte said. “And the citizens of Montana are the customers of these public health officials. They’re not the kings and queens,” he added, referring to health officials. “And so the job of government is to educate and communicate and help and provide the tools necessary. But in the end, it comes down to individual freedoms and the decisions that people make for themselves and their families.”
As Montana turned the corner from 2021 into 2022, the state’s COVID-19 death toll continued to rise. 2,000 Montana deaths were attributed to the virus in September. By Jan. 31, that number had grown to 3,000, with more than 18,000 active cases statewide. The omicron variant, while diminishing in other states, was continuing to circulate widely in Montana.
Gianforte acknowledges that the pandemic has impacted “every single Montanan.” Going forward, without an ability to forecast how the virus might change and continue to ripple across the state, he continues to reiterate that the vaccine is the best resource for protecting Montanans from the virus.
“Talk to your medical professional. Get vaccinated,” he said.
Asked what more he learned from his first year as a pandemic-era governor, Gianforte reflected on Montanans’ character.
“Montanans are resilient,” he said. “I’m hopeful that this surge is going to diminish over the next months and we’re going to get to a place where we can get back to more normal.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Feb. 4, 2022 to correct a mistaken word in a quote from MHA president Rich Rasmussen. Rasmussen said “stand in the gap” rather than “gaff.”
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