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Lake County extends mask directive for 30 days

by SCOT HEISEL
Lake County Leader | February 22, 2021 4:00 PM

Lake County Commissioners last week extended the county’s mask directive for 30 days in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The action was taken during the county health board’s bi-monthly meeting, four days after Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed an executive order allowing a statewide mask directive to expire. Gianforte’s order noted local jurisdictions have the power to implement their own mask requirements and may choose to do so.

"I’m asking Montanans for them to adopt personal responsibility to protect themselves and the people they love. And I think the decisions about these things are better made at the local level.” Gianforte said Feb. 12 during a visit of a Polson vaccination clinic.

Among those keeping local mask rules are: Lewis and Clark, Gallatin, Butte-Silver Bow and Missoula counties, along with the city of Whitefish and several of Montana's tribal governments, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Commissioner Gale Decker made a motion during the Tuesday, Feb. 16 meeting to extend a countywide state of emergency that was declared last March and included a mask directive. The health board will hold a special meeting in mid-March to revisit the state of emergency.

“The intent of the commissioners was to maintain the status quo for a while — 30 days — then take a look at the numbers again and see where our numbers are headed,” Decker said Monday. “It was just an attempt to maintain what we’ve got going. The numbers are going down.”

A county press release issued Feb. 17 states: “COVID-19 infections are trending downward and although the science of masking is controversial, it does appear that the combination of masking, hand washing, and social distancing practices has helped slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Following the motion, the board took comments from the public and discussed the issue before approving the motion on a 4-1 vote.

All three county commissioners — Decker, Bill Barron and Dave Stipe — serve on the health board, along with appointed county residents, currently Barbara Markham of Ronan and Roxanne Hovenkotter of Polson.

Barron was the lone dissenter. He said he didn’t support the motion because it does nothing without some sort of enforcement mechanism.

“I feel like what we’re doing is just a feel-good action, and I believe if this is serious enough that we’re going to mandate masks, we need to put teeth in it,” Barron said Monday. “If it isn’t, we need to vote it away and let people use their own responsibility.”

The state’s chief medical officer resigned from his post the day after Gianforte announced he would lift the statewide mask mandate. Dr. Gregory Holzman, who has been a key figure in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, will continue to serve in the role until April 16. Holzman did not say in his letter of resignation whether the move was connected to the governor’s decision to lift the mask requirement.

The Montana Legislature currently is considering HB 257, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, which would prohibit cities, counties and local health boards from compelling businesses to turn away customers who don't comply with health requirements, including those who refuse to wear face coverings. It also would prohibit local governments from taking any "retributive action" against businesses that don't enforce mask rules among their patrons – effectively nullifying emergency measures currently in effect in cities and counties.

Lake County Public Health on Monday reported 44 active COVID-19 cases in the county, with two current hospitalizations. Twenty-seven Lake County deaths have been attributed to the pandemic since it emerged a year ago. As of Monday, 8,037 doses of vaccine had been administered in the county, with 2,069 people fully immunized. Full immunization currently requires two doses spread out over several weeks.

Statewide, 216,383 doses have been given, and 68,191 people in Montana are fully immunized.