Mask Petition

A group wearing masks passes beneath a painting of two entwined rabbits outside of Erotique on Monday, July 6, 2020, in downtown Bozeman. There is a petition circulating online to require masks in public spaces.

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Bozeman city commissioners directed the city manager Monday night to send letters to local public health officials and the Montana University System to express support for mask and social-distancing mandates.

Commissioner Terry Cunningham proposed the action to express the commission’s support of further health regulations for local businesses and college campuses, like Montana State University, as cases of COVID-19 surge in Montana.

With support from a majority of commissioners, city manager Jeff Mihelich will send letters by the end of the week to the Gallatin City-County Board of Health and the commissioner of higher education asking them to enact strict policies related to social distancing, the use of face coverings and sanitary precautions.

“I believe the board of health needs to send a clear message to the community that adherence to these very simple steps — maintain social distance, wear masks in situations where there is close contact, and sanitize frequently — is the best way to avoid reverting to another lockdown,” Cunningham said.

The city will also review its policies related to social distancing, the use of face coverings and sanitary precautions at all public city facilities.

Cunningham said MSU and the city are inextricably linked and have an “obligation to look out for one another.” He said the review will show what city policies have worked well so far, and which ones need improvement.

The commission received more than 80 letters and emails from residents prior to Monday’s meeting. The vast majority who wrote in urged support for a mask mandate.

Deputy Mayor Cyndy Andrus said she understood what the proposed actions aim to do, that people have let their guards down and COVID-19 cases are rising. But she said she doesn’t think mandates are necessarily the best way to go.

She said there needs to be public acceptance of masks, and that maybe government should spend more money on raising awareness.

“I still think there’s work to be done to remind our community that we are in this together,” Andrus said.

Mayor Chris Mehl said he understands where Andrus is coming from, but he supported Cunningham’s proposals because a mandate is one of many tools.

“I’m seeing this as part of a larger effort,” Mehl said.

Commissioner Michael Wallner said he had also planned to ask the commission to show support for a mask mandate on Monday. He said he identifies with libertarian values, but that the evidence supporting masks can’t be ignored.

“If mask wearing becomes mandatory in select settings … as a public policy and economic specialist, I guarantee we will help our local economy,” Wallner said.

The Montana University System announced its official policy would be to encourage masks, but not require them, on its campuses. Christian, the higher education commissioner, said last week that the university system’s Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force would reconsider that policy as the number of COVID-19 cases surge.

Matt Kelley, Gallatin County health officer, has said that a county-wide mandate requiring face coverings is not off the table, but that it would come from the board of health. A board discussion is likely sometime in the next couple of weeks, Kelley said.

Gov. Steve Bullock has said that he would like to avoid a statewide mask mandate, that it’s more effective if public buy-in and social acceptance drive mask wearing. He said he does support local mask mandates.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.