Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte issued a directive Friday that lets the statewide mask mandate expire, though some of Montana's largest counties and tribal nations still have their own measures in place.
In an emailed statement, Gianforte said his criteria were met for ending the measure that had been in place since last July.
“Since Jan. 5, I have provided a clear, consistent path to rescinding the mask mandate,” Gianforte said. “First, we need to start getting the vaccine to our most vulnerable. Second, we need to protect businesses, nonprofits, places of worship, and health care providers from lawsuits if they make a good faith effort to protect individuals from the spread of coronavirus and follow clear public health guidelines. We have met both criteria, and the statewide mandate expires today.”
The measure Gianforte cited for vaccinating the most vulnerable was initial clinics giving the two-dose vaccine at all of the state's nursing homes and assisted living centers. He also cited improving daily caseload additions and lower hospitalization rates and deaths.
By Friday, at least 46,871 Montanans were fully immunized. More than 97,000 people have been sickened by the virus and 1,324 have died.
The other measure was signing Senate Bill 65 on Wednesday. The legislation aims to create liability shields for business, nonprofits, churches and other organizations over exposure to the virus. The bill passed with support from Republicans who said it would prevent frivolous lawsuits. Democrats argue it doesn't protect workers.
Also Friday, the state's top medical officer, Greg Holzman, announced his resignation, effective April 16. Holzman did not say why he was leaving the post. He has been a strong advocate for measures like the use of face masks.
While the state order is no longer in place, local counties and school districts may still enact their own masking measures that are more restrictive than the state's. Missoula, Gallatin, Butte-Silver Bow and Lewis and Clark counties all have local mask mandates that remain, while Yellowstone, Cascade and Flathead do not, though Whitefish has one for the city. Tribal nations in the state are also keeping their mask mandates in place, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
Businesses may also put in place their own rules for their properties, like Whitefish Mountain Resort saying this week it will still require masks, according to the Whitefish Pilot. Red Lodge Mountain ski resort in Eastern Montana said Friday its mask mandate would remain in place.
Montana's mask mandate ends as guidance at the federal level moves in the other direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that people should aim to wear two masks to slow the spread of new variants that appear to be more contagious.
Gianforte has said he'll still wear a mask and encourage others to do so.
On Thursday, the Montana Nurses Association decried lifting the mandate.
"In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to infect an average of 273 Montanans every day and with new variants of the coronavirus being reported almost every week, our governor decides to back away from one of the actions most effective at stopping the spread of the virus: wearing a mask," said executive director Vicky Byrd.
Missoula County's incident commander Cindy Farr said in a press conference Friday continued mask use was important.
"We still have many vulnerable community members left to vaccinate and we continue to have community transmission in our community," Farr said. "This means it's important we continue doing all we can to protect the community and that does mean continuing to wear masks."
Missoula County Commission Chair Josh Slotnick said he supports keeping the local mask mandate there.
"We need to acknowledge though things are getting better, we are still deep in this pandemic and we are a ways away from removing the mask mandate, which I feel like is our base level of protection," Slotnick said.
In his directive Friday, Gianforte also said he was consolidating previous orders issued by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
The new directive from Gianforte preserves expanded access to telehealth and provisions that increase capacity for truckers, though it does not appear things like provisions to access medical marijuana with minimal in-person contact were included in the new directive.
Measures for slowing the spread of the virus at places like the state prison and other facilities were also preserved; however, Gianforte did not continue a past measure allowing for a school district to provide educational services at an offsite instructional setting, including the provision of services through electronic means, to any pupil who either meets the residency requirements for that district, resides in the same county as the district or resides in a school district immediately adjacent to the district.
"After consulting with all state agencies on the directives needed to continue important pandemic activities, Gov. Gianforte identified these as Montana’s priorities," said spokesperson Brooke Stroyke in an email Friday.
"As we continue to confront this pandemic, Gov. Gianforte will consider input from diverse stakeholders to ensure the state is serving the people of Montana well."