medical face mask

Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statewide mask mandate on Wednesday in response to an increase in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The order went into effect immediately in counties with at least four active cases, which includes Gallatin County.

“Unfortunately it has become clear we need to do more and that asking folks to do the right thing just isn’t always going to be enough,” Bullock said.

The order requires people to wear a mask in all public indoor settings and at outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people who aren’t socially distanced.

Public spaces, such as businesses and government offices, must post signs that masks are required. They also must provide masks for staff and volunteers.

There are some exceptions to the requirement.

Masks are not needed for children under the age of 5, people with certain medical conditions, those eating or drinking at businesses that sell food or drinks, those participating in activities where masks could be unsafe like swimming and people speaking in front of a socially distanced audience.

Businesses, government agencies or event organizers can deny entry or refuse service to those who don’t wear a face covering. If necessary, they can contact law enforcement. Those people refusing to leave could be charged with trespassing.

“No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service,” Bullock said. “It’s that simple.”

Bullock emphasized that health departments and law enforcement should focus on educating people about masks rather than on penalizing them.

In issuing the order, Bullock cited recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and referenced a recent study that indicated widespread use of masks could limit the spread of COVID-19. He also said a mask mandate is an easier way to limit the spread of the virus than more stringent regulations like a stay-at-home order.

“There’s no reason this needs to be political because COVID-19 isn’t political,” Bullock said. “Instead, this is about being a Montanan and being supportive of those around us.”

The order comes as Montana set yet another record for the number of COVID-19 cases added in a single day, with 145 new cases on Wednesday. The state now has 1,147 active cases with 37 hospitalizations. Thirty-four Montanans have died.

In the last month, active cases have climbed from 55 to more than 1,000. Bullock said that even with the recent increase in hospitalizations and deaths, Montana continues to have enough ICU beds and ventilators and continues to have significantly fewer cases than other states.

Gallatin and Yellowstone counties have the highest numbers of cases.

The state reported 72 new cases for Gallatin County on Wednesday, but the Gallatin City-County Health Department reported 42, a daily record. The new cases are throughout the county and are tied to travel, community spread and contact with known cases, according to a news release.

The county health department reported a total of 144 active cases with four hospitalizations on Wednesday.

The state and county data differ because they are updated at different times of day and the county data includes out-of-county and out-of-state residents who are recovering locally.

A handful of counties, including Flathead, Missoula and Big Horn, have enacted mask requirements in recent weeks.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health was set to vote on a mask mandate on Tuesday but postponed the meeting until Friday amid protesters. County spokesperson Whitney Bermes said on Wednesday that the county is now reviewing the statewide directive and determining how to proceed.

In recent days, testing in Montana has become more difficult. Bullock said Quest Diagnostics, the private company that processes tests from the state’s surveillance testing events, has said it won’t be able to process tests from those events for two to three weeks. As a result, some upcoming testing events may be canceled.

Quest will still process the tests it has received from previous events, including one in Big Sky two weeks ago for which results have not yet been returned.

“When it takes a week to 10 days or more to provide us results back on our tests, it really is of more limited value to Montanans,” Bullock said.

The state is now working to expand the state lab’s capacity and may contract with another out-of-state lab to ensure testing can continue.

On Wednesday, Bullock also announced that the state would provide $75 million from the federal coronavirus relief package to K-12 schools — both private and public — to help them reopen in the fall. The funding will be partially based on school size and the state will provide a list of items that are eligible for reimbursement, including transportation and additional staff.