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While touring Montana State University’s COVID-19 testing site and laboratory Tuesday morning, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte complimented the school’s contributions in combatting the public health crisis and the state for sending money to help make it happen.

Though he said he isn’t going to second-guess decisions made by others, Gianforte identified an area where his ideas differ from Gov. Steve Bullock. Gianforte, a Republican, is running for governor against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.

“I think public policy needs to focus on keeping the most vulnerable people safe, taking precautions, having rapid tests, protecting our front-line workers,” Gianforte said.

“But I would be relying more on personal responsibility instead of mandates. I trust Montanans with their health and well-being and that of their loved ones. We should be providing guidance as opposed to mandates.”

In July, Bullock implemented a statewide mask mandate and in phase two of his reopening plan, group sizes are restricted to a maximum of 50 people. Bars and restaurants are only allowed to operate at 75% capacity.

Bullock also used federal CARES Act money to give Montana State $6.5 million to launch its testing site for asymptomatic students, expand testing capabilities and hire contact tracers and case managers.

Gianforte called the work MSU is doing “critically important.”

“It’s great to see MSU stepping forward using the CARES Act money to build testing capacity here in the state,” Gianforte said. “We need to be able to process tests at a rapid and reliable manner so that we can determine outcomes for individuals and honestly go on with our lives.”

When asked what actions he would take related to the coronavirus if elected governor, Gianforte said, “It’s hard to answer hypotheticals about the future.”

He emphasized that people he’s spoken to throughout the state have expressed the desire to return to work and for children to return to school in person.

“There are consequences of public policy decisions,” Gianforte said. “This whole crisis has created an economic pandemic. That needs a cure, too.”

The governor race has been tight based on polls conducted this summer. When asked how Cooney would handle the coronavirus as governor, his campaign spokesperson Ronja Abel said managing health risks is paramount.

“Mike Cooney’s first priority has been and always will be protecting the health and safety of Montanans,” Abel said in a statement, “so we can once again have a fully healthy economy, just like the one Cooney and Bullock helped create before the outbreak of the pandemic.”

Gianforte wore an MSU-themed mask while touring the school’s new testing site for students. Available for free to students showing symptoms of COVID-19, the site opened last week. It’s near the northeast corner of Bobcat Stadium, with car access from South Seventh Avenue. Those tests are processed in Helena. The average turnaround time for results has been between one and two days.

Asymptomatic testing among students is not available because of the state’s limited testing capacity. However, MSU’s COVID-19 laboratory in the Health Sciences Building is processing about 500-750 tests from asymptomatic surveillance tests from throughout other parts of the state for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

MSU spokesperson Michael Becker said helping testing efforts falls in line with the university’s mission of service and outreach.

“We want to be in Montana communities,” Becker said. “We want to use the university’s resources and our knowledge to help Montana families and Montana citizens.”

Gianforte said he was struck by how engineering students designed some parts of the robotics involved with processing tests. And doing that locally in Montana could speed up turnaround times for results.

“It’s a great asset to have here in the state,” Gianforte said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.