Montana’s Mask Mandate Has Been Lifted. Why Aren’t All Montanans Celebrating?

Here’s what might work better when it’s another state’s turn to mask down

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

On February 12, Montana became the third state to rescind its statewide mask directive. While it would be unreasonable to expect such an effort to be coordinated to perfection or to the satisfaction of everyone, I believe in this case there was significant opportunity for improvement. Here’s why:

Timing is everything. Gov. Greg Gianforte’s lifting of Montana’s mask mandate was not contingent on the state meeting a specific target in the number of cases, the reproductive number (also referred to as R₀), or a portion of individuals being vaccinated. Instead, it arrived on the heels of new legislation to protect businesses from litigation related to the novel coronavirus.

I personally believe such legislation makes sense, but it shouldn’t serve as the trigger to remove a public health guideline. Scientific data ought to be the driving force of such decisions, and it appears the leaders of my home state neglected to make that clear.

In the midst of a pandemic, applying a threshold for certain health guidelines serves to reassure the public that their safety comes before the political interests of their leaders. For example, in October, when Covid-19 cases were rising exponentially, the county health officer where I live announced that changes in capacity limits for restaurants and bars would take effect if the county exceeded 50 cases per 100,000.

Invariably, some members of the public were resistant to such restrictions. This reaction was understandable, particularly for people who were depending on the patronage of their businesses to maintain their livelihood, but when leaders used concrete statistical criteria to set an expectation, those individuals could, at least to some degree, be reassured that mitigation efforts were based on factual information rather than the whims of health care officials on a power trip.

Conversely, others remain leery of dropping safety precautions at the moment. These individuals are not only hesitant to remove their own masks but are concerned about being in an environment where others have done so.

Montana is currently in phase 1B of its vaccination distribution plan, which means the vaccine is available to those over age 70, minorities, frontline essential workers, people in congregate care or correctional facilities, and people with certain medical conditions. Imagine a woman in her late sixties who has managed to avoid Covid-19 thus far and is just weeks away from being eligible to receive her vaccine. How concerned might she be to arrive at a grocery store and realize the majority of people weren’t social distancing or masking?

Or what about a 26-year-old man with Crohn’s disease who knows he might not receive his vaccine until later this summer? Would he feel safer knowing that his state’s reproductive number was down to 0.87, which indicates each infected person is spreading the virus to less than one other person on average? Or might he be more confident in public with the understanding that cases, which incidentally were at 10 per 100,000 when the mask directive was issued last July, have now declined to 21 per 100,000 from a peak of 121 per 100,000 in mid-November?

This is indeed the outlook in Montana, which, overall, is good news. Furthermore, it’s true that as the prevalence of Covid-19 declines in a community, so do one’s chances of becoming infected. Unfortunately, though, this hypothetical gentleman won’t be reassured about his safety if he can’t see the link between the scientific data and the decision to lift the mask directive.

This was a missed opportunity in Montana. The day a state’s mask directive is lifted should be a day of celebration, not a day that leaves many wondering if it’s really a good idea. Here’s hoping the leaders of other states learn from the shortcomings of this one.

Husband, Father, Health and science writer, Interpreter of medical jargon, Hospitalist physician, Board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics

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