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As Montana struggles with masking rules, business leaders say it’s key to economic recovery

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    BILLINGS, Mont. (Billings Gazette) — Business leaders in Arizona, which has been one of the nation’s hottest of hotspots for new COVID-19 cases, have some advice for Montanans: wear a mask.

In Arizona, face masks have helped reduce COVID-19 cases and kept businesses open, according to the CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.

Because of mask mandates implemented in Arizona, the number of cases is decreasing and the state’s economy is stabilizing, Arizona Chamber President and CEO Glenn Hamer said during a virtual town hall meeting Tuesday with Billings civic leaders.

Hamer encouraged Montanans to follow the statewide order issued last Wednesday by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Arizona has reported more than 145,000 active cases and about 2,800 deaths connected to COVID-19. About 90% of the state now has a mask mandate after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey gave local governments the authority in mid-June, Hamer said.

“We are seeing a significant decline in the positivity of cases as well as our emergency room (visits) and our hospitalizations,” Hamer said. “All of the leading indicators now in Arizona are moving in the right direction.”

The mask directive in Montana comes as the state continues to see a surge in cases, with 97 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported and 1,179 active cases as of Tuesday. A total of 13 residents have now died since July 6 in connection with an outbreak of COVID-19 at Canyon Creek, a senior care facility in Billings.

While some medical professionals initially advised against masks, more research has concluded that masks are a critical part of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Still, it’s part of a bigger formula, said Dr. Robert Merchant, chief medical officer at Billings Clinic during the meeting. Washing hands, social distancing, staying home when ill and reminding others about the guidelines also play a role.

“One of the important things about that formula is you can’t take any one of those individually,” Merchant said. “These are complementary.”

The virtual meeting, hosted by the Billings Chamber of Commerce, was attended by more than 100 participants curious about the legalities and limits of the recent mandate.

The Montana Constitution allows for the governor to protect public health by implementing safety mandates, according to Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, the deputy legal counsel for the Governor’s Office.

Masking requirements differ between businesses that have a reception area and a separated office or warehouse space, and businesses where employees interact with the public, Sommers-Flanagan said.

Public-facing positions, like receptionists, should wear masks, she said. If employees work in offices away from others, masks are not required.

Masks are also required in outdoor spaces if social distancing is not possible or not followed.

“This is the question you ask yourself: ‘Do you have people from the public regularly coming into this space?’ If the answer is yes, masks are required there,” Sommers-Flanagan said.

Billings businesses mask up after statewide order

Businesses may confront people who are resistant to the mandate, said Sommers-Flanagan. It’s important to communicate the rules clearly and enforce it in good faith. Signs stating how to evade the mask directive are not in good faith, she said.

“If someone tells you they have a medical condition, we’re not advising you to question that,” Sommers-Flanagan said. “We don’t want you to ask them for documentation.”

Some businesses, however, have posted signs stating that owners and employees cannot legally ask customers about a medical condition due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, and the Fourth Amendment.

In Rockvale, a sign at the Quick-Stop Drive-In’s ordering window states in part, “if we see you without a mask, we will assume you have a medical condition and will welcome you inside to support our business.”

Quick Stop Drive-In manager Cyrill Hergenrider said the sign is meant to keep the state’s masking mandate from being a deterrent to customers. She said that the restaurant wants to serve everyone.

Other businesses have used similar signs, but the governor’s office and Jeana Lervick with the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office, said those types of signs are inappropriate.

“Neither HIPAA nor the Fourth Amendment prohibit businesses from requiring masks,” according to a statement from the governor’s office. “For over 200 years, the United States Supreme Court has clearly recognized the ability of states to adopt quarantine measures to combat the spread of disease.”

Signs posted at entrances should state that masks must be worn by anyone aged 5 and older, said RiverStone Health CEO John Felton, who is also Yellowstone County’s public health officer.

RiverStone’s website will be updated with a complaint form that residents can fill out, Felton said.

“The signage requirement in the directive is very specific,” Felton said.

Lervick said that enforcement does not involve officers writing tickets or citations for those who aren’t wearing a mask. At most, if someone is refusing to leave an establishment because they won’t wear a mask, business owners can report the matter to law enforcement as trespassing. However, most complaints have been resolved through conversations.

“The hope is we can continue that dialogue with folks when there are issues,” Lervick said. “But if there are not, ultimately what could happen is being charged with a crime, and that is a lengthy and very serious process.”

In Arizona, the issue of enforcement hasn’t really come up, Hamer said. Social norms are changing and people are complying with masking directives. The hope is that other states will adopt these social norms too, he said.

“Right now, in most parts of Arizona, it’s as controversial and political as wearing a seat belt,” Hamer said.

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