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Gianforte to sign bill curtailing local governments, businesses

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | May 4, 2021 7:00 AM

After sending it back to the Legislature with several proposed amendments, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte is poised to sign a bill that would invalidate mask requirements, occupancy limits and other pandemic response measures adopted by local governments and health officials.

Those measures include face covering ordinances currently in effect in Whitefish and several Montana counties.

Gianforte on Thursday vetoed House Bill 257, but said he would sign the bill if lawmakers approve several amendments designed to prevent an "onslaught of costly litigation" and ensure the bill doesn't preclude local health departments from performing routine duties, such as restaurant inspections.

Lawmakers approved those amendments and sent the bill back to Gianforte's desk Thursday afternoon, in the final hours of the 2021 legislative session. The votes fell along party lines, with Republicans generally in favor of the legislation and Democrats generally opposed.

Sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, the bill would prohibit cities, counties, local health boards and health officers from compelling businesses to enforce emergency health requirements and turn away customers who don't comply, including those who refuse to wear face coverings. The bill also would prohibit local governments from taking any "retributive action" against businesses for noncompliance with such ordinances, including fines, civil lawsuits and criminal charges.

In a letter to lawmakers explaining his amendments, Gianforte said the bill would prevent "overreach" by local health officials. He also wrote, "It's critical that we avoid fundamentally reshaping Montana's local public health system as a consequence of actions taken in response to the current pandemic — but rather consider proposals that address the ongoing issues created by 'one-size-fits-all' regulations, orders, directives or mandates while allowing local public health officials to do their jobs."

Hinkle said the governor's amendments "retain the strength and purpose of the bill, but they provide a little more clarity for the health boards."

The Whitefish City Council enacted its mask ordinance in February in anticipation that Gianforte would rescind the statewide mask mandate issued by former Gov. Steve Bullock. In an email, Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith said the city's face covering requirement "will effectively be unenforceable" when Gianforte signs HB 257 into law.

Parts of the ordinance pertaining to crowd size limits may still remain in effect.

GIANFORTE ALSO is poised to sign House Bill 702, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, which would prohibit employers from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, after he introduced amendments that address some, but not all, of the concerns raised by health-care organizations.

Gianforte's amendments, which Republican lawmakers approved on Thursday, clarify that employees can voluntarily provide their vaccine records and that employers will not be seen as discriminating when they impose reasonable accommodations, such as requiring masks, for employees who are not vaccinated or choose not to divulge their vaccine status.

Gianforte's amendments also say nursing homes, long-term care facilities and assisted-living facilities would be exempt from the new law if having unvaccinated employees would violate federal regulations or guidance. The exemption would not apply to hospitals that are also subject to federal standards.