Records: Montana governor feared backlash over mask mandate
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide mask mandate came after hundreds of Montana residents, business owners and health care leaders demanded the move as virus cases mounted in the state, records obtained by The Associated Press reveal.
For weeks, the Democratic governor had resisted such a mandate, fearing it would backfire and cause fewer people to wear masks despite evidence that they help keep the virus from spreading, a review of thousands of emails shows.
Bullock issued the mandate Wednesday but the pressure to order it began building in early June, when Bullock lifted a quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors and allowed larger gatherings for the first time since he shut down much of the economy in March. Montana has seen infections spike since the reopening.
Among those urging mandatory use of masks was the Montana Nurses Association.
“This could help keep our state open, assist in schools opening, and give citizens the confidence to venture out as safely as they can,” Vicky Byrd, CEO of the association, wrote in an email to Greg Holzman, state medical officer.
After initially resisting such calls, Bullock reversed course and added Montana to the more the 25 states that have face covering rules. Colorado, Arkansas and Michigan also recently implemented the requirements.
Political leaders have grappled with whether to simply encourage mask use or require it, often coming under intense pressure from mandate supporters and critics who contend the practice infringes on personal rights.
Montana’s mandate applies in counties with four or more active cases of COVID-19 and requires masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing can’t be observed.
Throughout June and early July, the number of emails and phone calls to Bullock’s office regarding the use of masks ballooned, fueled by social media campaigns.
Those who called for a mandate included business owners, people with compromised immune systems and servers and staff from bars and restaurants where patrons routinely ignored recommendations to don face coverings.
“MAKE US WEAR MASKS!” implored Justin Leavens of Columbia Falls, who works in the tourism industry the Whitefish area.
“Mandatory masks may seem to poll unpopular now, but the decision will prove to be a winner in the long-run,” Leavens said in a June 27 email to Bullock, noting that visitors were not following mask recommendations.
Some tied the issue explicitly to Bullock’s bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Megan Arseneau of Hungry Horse said she was impressed with Bullock’s early actions that shut down much of the economy in hopes of limiting the virus,. But she warned he would lose her vote in the November election if he waited much longer to act on masks.
“It seems you’re more concerned about Republican votes than the health of the state,” she said.
The administration’s initial reluctance to call for universal masking came as the issue became increasingly politicized, and Bullock heard from others who were strongly opposed.
“Don’t do it unless you’re prepared to arrest those of us who choose not to wear them, because it WILL come to that,” registered nurse Dianne Reinhardt wrote on June 29.
As his staff brainstormed ideas to popularize mask use without making it a legal requirement, Bullock said in a June 25 email that he was concerned a mandate would lead to a “counterproductive backlash.” He urged his staff to come up with a “bunch of different avenues to try to make this happen.”
In another email dated June 30, Bullock said he spoke to the owner of a bar in Bozeman who predicted “there would be insurrection” against any mask mandate.
Montana has experienced one of the lowest confirmed infection rates in the U.S., but recent weeks ended any remaining illusions that it could escape the pandemic. More than half of the state’s 2,366 confirmed virus cases have been reported since July 1.
Holzman, one of the state’s chief medical experts, wrote in late June that a mandate could cause Montana to “fall further behind” on masks.
Instead, the administration came up with creative ways to increase mask use, including enlisting the help of college football coaches and other sports stars and celebrities, and disseminating posters and public service announcements.
Bullock suggested giving incentives to the private sector, such as allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity if they required masks for employees and customers, or giving CARES Act bonus payments to businesses that require masks.
The administration also set aside $1 million for a public education campaign to encourage mask use and other virus prevention measures.
On June 30, a member of Bullock’s staff detailed in a memo possible avenues for requiring masks in the state, with information on mandates that had already been implemented elsewhere. Two weeks later, the governor announced the new mandate.
Marissa Perry, the governor’s communications director, said the decision to introduce a directive came after education efforts failed to yield the results they were hoping for.
“While we feel we had some success in this effort and will continue to focus on educating and raising awareness, it was evident that more Montanans need to be wearing masks to get our hands around this virus,” Perry said in a statement.
Perry said there has been “a small amount of pushback” in response to the directive, but businesses and law enforcement are “overwhelmingly taking masking up seriously.”
An op-ed signed by 38 Montana sheriffs released on Friday calls on residents to take “personal responsibility,” stating that the governor’s directive “is not a mandate for law enforcement to issue citations and arrest violators.“
During the announcement Wednesday of the new requirement, Bullock said it was modeled after other states’ mandates, including those in conservative states such as Texas, and he lauded President Donald Trump for encouraging mask wearing in the past week.
But the day after Bullock announced the mask rule, some GOP lawmakers refused to wear face coverings during a meeting in the Capitol, prompting Democratic lawmakers to stage a virtual walk out, the Helena Independent Record reported.
Bullock said during the Wednesday press conference “there’s no reason this needs to be political.”
“Coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or independent,” he said. “It’s an unthinking parasite that can infect you either way.”
Brown reported from Billings.
Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.