MASKING UP

One week into the governor's mask directive
Thursday, July 23, 2020
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One week into Governor Steve Bullock’s mask directive and things are proving to follow a familiar trend — nothing is simple when it involves COVID-19.

The directive was announced during a press conference last Wednesday, July 15, and “requires businesses, government offices and other indoor spaces open to the public to ensure that employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, and other members of the public wear a face mask that covers their mouth and nose while remaining inside these spaces.” The directive also requires face coverings at organized outdoor activities of 50 or more people, where social distancing is not possible or is not observed.

The purpose is largely to mitigate the spread of the virus by asymptomatic carriers while allowing businesses to remain open – something vital to local and the state economies. Many businesses, both large and small, are in dire condition in the wake of the shutdown of all non-essential businesses in the spring and the continued capacity regulations in place.

Also, asymptomatic testing that has been taking place during the past several weeks has provided the first real snapshot of Montana’s positivity rate. Substantially increased testing has resulted in double-digit — and sometimes triple-digit — new daily cases. There is concern that some of the increase could be due to citizens growing complacent about social distancing, hand-washing and other measures that have become commonplace during the last five months.

The directive went into effect immediately for all counties where there are at least four active cases.

At that point, Stillwater County’s active case count was seven. It has since dropped to five.

The morning after the directive was delivered, it was announced in a live Facebook video on the Stillwater Billing Clinic page that for the sake of consistency, masks would be required in the county until there were no active cases.

The decision was made by public health. However, that decision has since been reversed under careful consideration and review, with Stillwater County Unified Command deciding this week to stick with the governor’s 4-case threshold.

In place to make decisions for Stillwater County is Unified Command – consisting of Stillwater Public Health, the county, Stillwater Billings Clinic, county Disaster and Emergency Services (DES), public schools and the Stillwater County Sheriff’s Department.

EVOLVING CHANGES

County health officials conducted a Zoom meeting with business owners last Friday to review the directive and answer questions. Businesses were instructed to post a sign that states “masks are required for ages 5 and older” at each of the public entrances of their business, and that the business employees that have “public facing” contact need to be wearing a mask unless they have an exemption through the order, said Sailer.

Signs were up in several locations by Monday. The directive was addressed on several business Facebook pages as well.

Initial language on some Facebook posts stated that entry would not be allowed without a mask. Some of that language has now changed to state that businesses will assume that customers who are not wearing masks have medical conditions that exclude them from the directive.

The directive also gives businesses the ability to refuse unmasked customers and made the following recommendations:

-Children under 5 are exempt.

-Masks may be removed while eating or drinking at a business or during activities such as exercising, giving a speech in front of a socially distanced audience or while receiving medical care.

-Also, those with medical conditions that would make wearing a mask unsafe are exempt.

The press release also states that law enforcement can be called upon to “enforce” state trespassing laws if someone refuses to wear a mask and refuses to leave a businesses.

At the same time, the directive states that law enforcement and public health agencies should “focus their enforcement” on education about the risks of COVID-19 transmission, and use “formal enforcement mechanisms” such as citations for “the most egregious, repeat violations that put the public at risk.”