Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte on Jan. 13 lifted COVID-19 restrictions on bars, restaurants, casinos and breweries and limits on in-person gatherings effective at 5 a.m. on Jan. 15.

“Improving our response to the pandemic has been my top priority,” Gianforte announced in a press release. “Today, I am issuing a new directive that removes or replaces the cumbersome layers of the existing ones. These new directives are clear. They are practical. They are commonsense. And they are easy to understand.”

Gianforte’s directive replaces previous directives from then-Gov. Steve Bullock. Gianforte says his directive provides clear, easy-to-understand guidance and repeals regulations on Montana small businesses, including restrictions on hours of operation and capacity.

Since March 2020, small business owners across Montana have worked to create a safe environment for their employees and customers while keeping their doors open. The new directive acknowledges the diversity of challenges businesses face in this pandemic and affords them the flexibility to develop and implement appropriate policies based on industry best practices, he said.

“We can reduce the burden on our small business owners while simultaneously protecting the health of Montana workers and customers. These are not mutually exclusive,” Gianforte said.

Where industry best practices do not exist, the governor’s directive states that “such policies should be developed and implemented in accordance with federal, state, and local regulations and guidance.”

His new directive provides for:

PUBLIC GATHERINGS: Any public gatherings or events should be managed in a way that accommodates social distancing guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC). 

BUSINESSES: Businesses face diverse challenges in this emergency and need flexibility to serve their customers in a healthful environment. Therefore, businesses should make reasonable efforts to develop and implement appropriate policies based on industry best practices during this emergency. Where no such industry practices exist, such policies should be developed and implemented in accordance with federal, state, and local regulations and guidance regarding: social distancing; temperature checks and/or symptom screening; testing, isolating and contact tracing, in collaboration with public health authorities; sanitation; use of disinfection of common and high-traffic areas; teleworking. 

SCHOOLS: Access to school is essential to the developmental, social, mental, and educational needs of school-age children. Schools should make reasonable efforts to follow industry standards best practices recommended by the CDC and the Office of Public Instruction. 

GENERAL MASKING REQUIREMENTS: A statewide mask mandate remains in effect, as follows: A face covering that covers the mouth and nose shall be worn at all times in indoor spaces open to the public. Face coverings shall be provided for all employees and volunteers. All points of entry open to the public shall have a clearly visible sign posted stating: “Mask or face covering use required for ages 5 and older.” 

For any organized outdoor activity where social distancing is not possible or is not observed, a face covering that covers the mouth and nose shall be worn at all times. 

The following are excluded from the directive: children under the age of 5; persons consuming food or drinks in an establishment that offers food or drinks for sale; persons engaged in an activity that makes wearing a face covering impractical or unsafe, such as strenuous physical exercise or swimming; persons seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired;  persons giving a speech or engaging in an artistic, cultural, musical or theatrical performance for an audience, provided the audience is separated by at least six feet of distance; persons temporarily removing their face covering for identification purposes; persons required to remove face coverings for the purpose of receiving medical evaluation, diagnosis or treatment; and persons who have a medical condition precluding the safe wearing of a face covering. 

Accommodation must be made for those entitled under federal and state disability protections, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Montana Human Rights Act, labor laws, or other applicable law. 

Businesses, other persons responsible for indoor spaces open to the public, and sponsors of organized outdoor activities are entitled to reasonably rely in good faith on the representations of employees, volunteers, contractors, customers, visitors, or members of the public regarding the applicability of the exceptions above. Reasonable, good faith reliance on such representations is an affirmative and complete defense to any enforcement proceedings brought pursuant to this 

In a press conference Jan. 5, Gianforte provided a path to rescinding the statewide mask mandate. First, the most vulnerable Montanans are being vaccinated. Second, the Legislature sends to his desk a measure to protect businesses and schools from lawsuits if they make a good faith effort to protect individuals from the spread of coronavirus and follow clear public health guidelines.

The full text of Gianforte’s Executive Order 2-2021 and directive implementing EO 2-2021 may be found HERE and HERE.