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.
Bullock, who was term-limited out of the governor’s office and lost his bid for the U.S. Senate in November’s general election, had originally put in place a mask requirement in July that covered each county in the state that had “four or more confirmed and active COVID-19 cases,” and ordered that masks be worn in indoor public spaces and also for outdoor events that include “50 or more people” and lack social distancing, according to the directive.
Bullock expanded that order last month to all counties after pointing to positive cases soaring both in the state and nationally and noting that “our healthcare workers are exhausted and hospital resources are becoming exhausted.” Among other moves, he also limited restaurant, bar and casino capacity to 50 percent and ordered them to close by 10 p.m.
On the campaign trail however, Gianforte did appear to offer some clues about how he would govern during the pandemic. In audio from an online event in July published on YouTube Gianforte talked positively about herd immunity and said when it came to a vaccine it will be “an individual choice for individuals whether they take it or not,” according to HuffPost.
In August, Montana Public Radio reported that Gianforte was non-committal when pressed over maintaining the mask mandate.
“I trust Montanans to make the right decisions for themselves as opposed to edicts from Helena,” he said, according to the report.
And in October, Montana’s Democratic party called out the GOP candidate for appearing maskless in public.
Still, as he prepares for the transition, Gianforte has shown a willingness to include some key experts for his still to come plan. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Adjutant General Matthew Quinn, who is in charge of current Gov. Bullock’s coronavirus team, are members of the incoming governor’s COVID-19 Task Force, according to Gianforte’s transition team website.
Quinn also briefed Gianforte last month about the pandemic, according to a press release from the transition that also said that Quinn “will provide the governor-elect with regular briefings on COVID-19 and the state’s response.”
In an email, a spokesperson said, “Governor-elect Gianforte will continue working with Governor Bullock during the transition as the state confronts COVID-19 and its economic fallout,” but did not answer questions about whether there are coronavirus restrictions in place that the governor-elect plans to change, roll back or not use when he becomes governor. The spokesperson also did not answer what will happen to the statewide mask mandate Bullock has put in place.
In response to a series of questions from The Daily Beast about the coronavirus situation in Montana and the potential change in approach as the state’s shift from a Democratic to a Republican statewide governor, a spokesperson for Bullock stressed hope for the governor-elect to “listen to the concerns of doctors and nurses on the frontlines and trusted public health experts,” as governor.
But like others in the state, Bullock’s office could only point to hope about how his Republican successor will lead the state through the pandemic rather than weigh in on the specifics that are yet to come.
“The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that over 400 lives could be saved between now and March 1 if the statewide masking requirement is followed,” a spokesperson for Bullock told The Daily Beast in an email. “Governor Bullock hopes that the governor-elect will incorporate public health science and data into his decision-making.”
Vicky Byrd, a registered nurse who is the chief executive officer of the Montana Nurses Association, was more blunt about her feelings if the state’s mask mandate is taken away by the incoming governor but expressed hope it will remain in place. Noting that the state's coronavirus situation “is pretty dire,” Byrd warned that if Gianforte removes the mask mandate “we will push back very hard.”
“Because that would be completely inappropriate, against science,” Byrd said. “He's not an MD, he's not a nurse, he's not a public health expert, so I would certainly hope he would not pull that mandate back.”