Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, speaks during a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee in January.

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The state House gave initial approval Monday to a bill the sponsor said will provide liability protections to the state’s businesses over exposure to COVID-19.

The bill’s passage is one of the requirements Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has to lift the statewide mask mandate. The other is more widespread vaccination of those most at-risk from the virus because of age or health issues.

By Monday, 26,917 Montanans were fully vaccinated and 107,300 total doses had been administered.

Senate Bill 65 is from Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, and is carried by Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, in the House. The bill passed a second reading on a 66-33 vote, and after a final vote in the House will head back to the Senate to concur on amendments made in the House before going to Gianforte’s desk.

In his State of the State address last week, Gianforte said he’ll sign the bill once it gets to him.

Noland on the House floor Monday called the bill “critical” to lift the mask mandate and said it would protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits.

“We need folks to be able to be allowed to go back to work,” Noland said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hampered the state’s economy, and Republicans have said they see the liability bill as an avenue for recovery.

But Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, said the bill is “unnecessary and dangerous” because it could lead businesses to believe they have a bigger shield from liability than the legislation creates.

“We already have laws that protect our businesses from frivolous lawsuits and these laws are working,” Sullivan said, adding that the state has not seen a spike in lawsuits during the pandemic. “ ... Small businesses might think this bill lets them go back to business with no repercussions (for not following health mandates).”

Under the legislation, businesses would have protections for lawsuits from exposure to COVID-19 except in the case of gross negligence. The bill also says that businesses must follow at least one form of health guidance in place, though it does not require businesses to enforce those mandates by doing things like making sure people are wearing masks.

Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, said because the bill has the gross negligence provision, it provides sufficient protection.

“This is a way we can get Montana back to business and I feel we need to back this up and vote (yes),” Loge said.

Rep. Kim Abbott, the minority leader in the House, argued the bill lets bad actors create unsafe workspaces.

“I want to spend my time helping small businesses comply with public health recommendations so they can keep their workforce healthy and they can keep their doors open,” Abbott said.

At last count about 24 bills that would affect the state’s response to COVID-19, touching on everything from the power of the governor or local health officials to enact emergency orders to law enforcement involvement in enforcing mandates.

Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, said Monday that Republican leadership was working to consolidate similar bills.

Galt also said Monday that several bill sponsors were in contact with the governor’s office and other interested parties to “flesh out concerns not only with having a check and balance but also the ability to move quickly” in the case of an emergency.

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