County Vaccination, Moderna Vaccine

Healthcare workers prepare doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 6 at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds.

Support Local Journalism


Subscribe


Montana is preparing for potential legal action in the wake of President Joe Biden’s announcement for vaccine mandates for millions of workers in the country

The rules and regulations of the president’s announcement are still unclear, but Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said in a statement that when the rules materialize, a lawsuit would be ready.

“Just weeks ago, the Biden administration said issuing vaccine mandates is ‘not the role of the federal government.’ That remains true today,” Knudsen said. “I’m exploring all possible legal approaches to protect the rights of Montana workers and businesses from President Biden’s unconstitutional mandate. Once his administration releases its rule, Montanans can expect to see me file a lawsuit to strike it down.”

Montana is the only state with a law that makes discrimination based on vaccination status illegal. The federal mandate could clash with state law, also known as House Bill 702.

“We’ll wait and see what he [the president] is actually doing,” said House Bill 702 sponsor Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan. “As of right now, House Bill 702 is the law in Montana. And you cannot be discriminated against based on your vaccine status.”

Biden’s announcement comes after weeks of rising delta variant infections and deaths across the country and in Montana. Five more people Gallatin County died in August of complications related to COVID-19.

The federal mandate is multi-faceted, affecting federal workers in the executive branch, federal contractors, private businesses with 100 or more employees and hospitals and other health care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid.

But what the president’s plan looks like on the ground level, especially for businesses, is still unclear.

President Biden signed an executive order Thursday requiring all federal employees to get vaccinated. But for private businesses with 100 or more employees, the development of rules and regulations for mandatory vaccination falls onto the shoulders of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The federal department’s approach, which is an arm of the Department of Labor, could affect up to 80 million workers in the private sector nationwide. Some Bozeman-area businesses, like Zoot Enterprises and Heebs Grocery, declined to comment due to uncertainty of the extent of the rules.

What is known from the president’s announcement is that private businesses must require vaccination for their employees or weekly testing for people without a COVID-19 vaccine. Any violations could result in a $14,000 fine for each infraction. Requests for comment from the OSHA regional office in Billings were not returned.

Gov. Greg Gianforte rebuked the announcement in a tweet on Thursday.

“President Biden’s vaccination mandate is unlawful and un-American,” Gianforte wrote. “We are committed to protecting Montanans’ freedoms and liberties against this gross federal overreach.”

Brooke Stroyke, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email all options are on the table for how Gianforte will respond once the rules become clear.

“In the meantime, the governor is exploring all options to protect against President Biden’s unprecedented vaccine mandate that undermines our personal freedoms and liberties and threatens our small businesses and the jobs they create,” Stroyke said.

Officials in Gallatin County and Bozeman are also waiting. Whether political subdivisions, like county and other local governments, fall under Biden’s order is unclear. The county does not keep track of, or require, vaccines for employees, Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said.

The city does not track vaccination status for employees either, and city spokesperson Melody Mileur said that, like many others, the city is unclear on what comes next.

“The City of Bozeman is currently reviewing the President’s recent vaccine mandate and is still determining how it might affect the City as an organization,” Mileur said in an email.

Biden mandated Thursday that businesses with 100 or more employees will require staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 tests. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also extended a vaccination requirement, issued for nursing home staff earlier this summer, to other health care facilities that treat Medicaid and Medicare patients.

“Both sets of these regulations will absolutely apply to Bozeman Health,” said Kallie Kujawa, Bozeman Health’s COVID-19 incident command lead.

Bozeman Health intends to implement the mandate after guidance is issued by the Department of Labor.

The health system employs about 2,600 people, the largest private employer in Gallatin County. About 80% of Bozeman Health’s employees are vaccinated, Kujawa said.

“We’re encouraging all remaining staff to become vaccinated before it becomes a legal requirement,” she said.

It’s still unclear how HB 702 will affect the hospital, Kujawa said. Hospitals are not exempt from the bill.

Katy Peterson, a spokesperson for the Montana Hospital Association, told the Associated Press the federal mandate appeared to clash with the state law and that additional clarification would be needed.

Peterson did not respond to a Chronicle request for additional information.

Kujawa said Bozeman Health would be monitoring the impact of federal rules on Montana law while still actively encouraging remaining employees to vaccinate prior to October.

Michael Becker, a spokesperson for Montana State University, said the college was waiting on guidance regarding the vaccine mandate from the Montana University System and the Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian.

“As yet there has been no word down from them,” Becker said early Friday afternoon.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.