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Montana gov. stops short of issuing mask order as cases rise

by Iris Samuels
| July 2, 2020 1:44 PM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday said he wouldn't issue an order requiring people to wear masks in public, leaving county and tribal officials and businesses to consider their own measures as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rises.

The Democratic governor repeated his request that people wear masks, avoid large crowds and adhere to social-distancing guidelines, but he stopped short of imposing any new restrictions.

“I hope we don’t have to get to the point of a mandate," he said in a news conference. “But if we do we also have to make sure everybody’s on board in order to be successful.”

Meanwhile, local officials are beginning to push for stricter measures. Missoula city and county officials requested the local public health officer issue an order requiring people to wear masks or cloth face coverings in licensed businesses to prevent the spread of the virus.

“While an ordinance requiring face coverings is an option for local government, a health order allows for enforcement through licensure in businesses accustomed to enforcing health standards to operate,” the letter written by Missoula Mayor John Engen and co-signed by three county commissioners said, according to the Missoulian.

In Lewis and Clark County, elected officials warned residents Wednesday that they will implement new restrictions if people don’t follow guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing.

“No one wants to go to a mandate,” Lewis and Clark County Commission Chairwoman Susan Geise said, according to the Independent Record. “This is your last chance.”

Big Horn County, which is covered mostly by the Crow Indian Reservation, already requires all people to wear masks when outside their homes. Blackfeet tribal leaders closed down the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park and implemented a two-week quarantine order for visitors.

Bullock said he supports local and tribal jurisdictions taking the steps they believe are needed for their safety, and that he is pleased to see many private businesses requiring masks of their employees and others.

Health officials reported 67 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, setting a record high for reported cases in a day in the state. The reported cases brings the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Montana since Sunday to 222 — which is more than 20% of the 1,083 total cases reported in the state since March.

Fourteen people in the state were hospitalized as of Thursday, and 22 have died.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

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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.