Residents filled the Jefferson County Commission meeting room Jan. 5 concerning an agenda item described as a “mask requirement.”
Commission Chairman Leonard Wortman quickly sought to explain why it was on the agenda and emphasized that it was specific to county employees and individuals who do business with those offices.
There is no desire to enact a county-wide mask mandate, said Wortman.
Gov. Greg Gianforte has indicated that he plans to lift the state-wide mask mandate once certain measures are in place, such as liability protections for businesses and churches, as well as altering the vaccine schedule to push the more vulnerable up the line. Montana has been under a state-wide mask mandate since July, enacted by former Gov. Steve Bullock, and part of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Wearing a mask has become not only a tool used to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s also become another fissure in an already politically divided country, with those against their use tending to lean Republican.
Wortman said county employees have asked for some level of protection and so masks are appropriate for those individuals, as well as residents who visit county offices and departments.
As for everyone else, Commissioner Bob Mullen said that those who want to wear a mask are welcome to do so.
“That’s basically our position. We believe people can take steps to keep themselves and those around them safe,” he said. Mullen was elected chairman for 2021 later in the meeting.
Wortman elaborated further.
If someone is uncomfortable around another not wearing a mask, then don’t go near them, he said.
“It should be a personal decision, a business decision,” Wortman said, adding that masks aren’t the “greatest thing,” and that staying away from others is probably the best strategy.
Under state statute, the power to enact public health directives falls under the auspices of the Health Board.
Jefferson County Health Board Chairperson Christina Binkowski said masking was likely to be discussed at the Jan. 12 meeting.
Meanwhile, the City of Boulder has added “discussion and council determination on city mask mandate” to its Jan. 19 meeting agenda.
The Commission’s agenda item sparked a discussion among those who attended the meeting.
Several spoke in favor of wearing masks, and they were countered by those against the practice.
Some discredited the science behind the effectiveness of masks, and others said folks should be able to think for themselves.
Whitehall resident Bethel Wagner urged people to optimize their health with vitamin D and to boost their immune system. Wagner also said the mask studies have used “sloppy” methods and are not reliable.
“I would encourage you to dig a little bit deeper,” she said.
Another resident asked rhetorically, if masks were so “magical,” then why do new COVID-19 cases keep occurring?
Jefferson County Public Health Supervisor Pam Hanna said that science changes as more is learned about a disease, including COVID-19. Right now, “We do know that masks are source control,” she said.
Hanna pointed out that there have so far been no deaths in Jefferson County’s long term care facilities because everyone wears a mask. She added that masking has also prevented large outbreaks in the schools, and while there have been two nurses with COVID in her office, it hasn’t spread because everyone wears a mask.
It’s not 100%, but it’s a tool, along with hand washing, social distancing and now the vaccine, she said.
Meanwhile, Whitefish City Council and the Missoula County Health Board decided to maintain a mask mandate despite any changes at the state level, according to news reports.
To date, Jefferson County has had six residents die due to COVID-19 since Nov. 30, according to reports from the Public Health Department.
The latest death was on Jan. 8.
There was an increase of 40 cases last week, from Jan. 4 to 7, with 59 active as of Jan. 7. At that time, there were two individuals hospitalized.
Since March, Jefferson County has had 847 individuals test positive for the virus.