Montana Pro-Maskers Worried New GOP Guv Will Undo Restrictions

Montana’s Democratic governor had a plan to fight the pandemic, starting with mask mandates. Now…

Montana’s Democratic governor had a plan to fight the pandemic, starting with mask mandates. Now he’s on his way out, replaced by a Republican with an uneven track record on the virus and no clear plan yet for how to proceed.

That’s left some in this state nervous, especially because COVID-19 is already on a tear in Montana.

That uncertainty has left Scott Wetzel, an associate professor of immunobiology at the University of Montana, scared about what potentially lies ahead for the state.

“I just don’t have a lot of faith that we’re going to have a coherent policy going forward,” said Wetzel, who lost his mother to the virus and had COVID-19 himself in October but has since recovered. “I’m afraid that he’s going to take the cue from the governor of South Dakota and not do anything.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), the incoming governor, who is best known outside of Montana for body-slamming a reporter on the campaign trail during his 2017 run for Congress, will be the first Republican to hold the office in 16 years. His election also means the GOP will have unified control over the state House, Senate and governor’s office.

But if he has an exact plan how to use that streamlined power to tackle the pandemic, he hasn’t clued the public in on what’s ahead. In an email, a spokesperson for the Gianforte Transition said “Governor-elect Gianforte will announce a plan after his COVID-19 Task Force provides its recommendations. He’s relying on his COVID-19 Task Force to help chart an effective path forward for after he takes office.”

Reports in recent weeks from the White House Coronavirus Task Force have shown the state’s coronavirus situation among the worst in the country by two key metrics. In the first four reports from November, federal officials said the state had the highest test-positivity rate in the country. Its rate for new cases per 100,000 population, according to the task force, also remained among the ten highest in the country in each of those reports. The Nov. 22 report warned that “at a test positivity rate of almost 30%, testing is inadequate throughout the state.”

In the latest report released this week, the state’s situation had improved slightly due to a dip in new cases and test positivity but still remained among the worst nationwide per the task force rankings, with the state’s test positivity having the second “highest rate in the country,” and new cases metric coming in at 10th highest.

“My biggest concern is that we’re going to walk in and (Gianforte’s) going to get sworn in and the mask mandate for the state of Montana will be gone,” said incoming Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour. “I’m very concerned about that being an outcome.”

The challenges Gianforte will be walking into next month will be immense especially as Montana, like states across the country, will be faced with the dueling concerns of flu season during the coronavirus pandemic and handling the expected distribution of a coronavirus vaccine.

“During his campaign he spoke about more personal responsibility, more of an individual approach then what (current Democratic. Gov Steve) Bullock’s done with the mandates and so forth, but he hasn’t really said much since the campaign and the election as far as where he’s going and what he’s planning on doing once he gets sworn in on (January) 4,” incoming State Senate GOP President Mark Blasdel told The Daily Beast before pointing to a COVID-19 task force created by Gianforte working on a pandemic approach ahead of his inauguration.

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