Glacier County residents learned last week that they would be required to wear masks covering the nose and mouth when inside businesses, government offices, and other organized indoor, and some outdoor, spaces after Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive on July 15.

The directive requires that, in counties with four or more confirmed and active COVID-19 cases, “all businesses, government offices, or other persons responsible for indoor spaces open to the public shall require and take reasonable measures to ensure that all employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, or other members of the public wear a face covering.” 

Residents living in counties with three or fewer confirmed and active COVID-19 cases, including Toole and Pondera Counties, are “strongly encouraged to wear face coverings,” according to the directive.

The directive means that Montana has joined other states that have adopted similar directives in an effort to curb the transmission of coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

“If you know the virus is in your community, wearing a mask makes a lot of sense at this point in time,” said Dr. Gregory Holzman, state medical officer at the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. 

After Gov. Bullock lifted his stay-at-home order on April 26, Montana’s cases remained relatively stable through May, according to data available on the Montana Department of Health and Human Services website. By late June, however, case numbers began rising, peaking on July 14 with 146 new cases. As of July 20, there were 1,248 active cases.

Jenny Krapf, interim director of the Glacier County Health Department, says she and her staff plan to continue to offer education and support to businesses in adhering to the directive.

Even with the directive, Krapf stressed that people should still engage in commonsense practices to help curb the spread of coronavirus.

“We continue to encourage regular hand washing, avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; avoiding close contact when possible outside your home, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces often, and staying home when sick, unless seeking medical care,” Krapf said.

There are significant caveats, requirements, and exceptions in the directive. All face coverings must cover the nose and mouth. Face shields are acceptable alternatives to masks. All indoor spaces open to the public are covered by the directive. 

Also included is any organized outdoor activity of 50 or more people “for an activity or event organized or sponsored by a business or person, or that takes place on the property of a business or person,” where social distancing cannot or does not take place, is covered by the directive. 

Exceptions to Governor’s Directive

The directive also allows for exceptions to the rule:

•Children under the age of five. All children between the ages of two and four, however, are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering in accordance with the provisions of this Directive. Children under the age of two should not wear a face covering; 

•Persons consuming food or drinks in an establishment that offers food or drinks for sale; 

•Persons engaged in an activity that makes wearing a face covering impractical or unsafe, such as strenuous physical exercise or swimming; 

•Persons seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired; 

•Persons giving a speech or engaging in an artistic, cultural, musical, or theatrical performance for an audience, provided the audience is separated by at least six feet of distance; 

•Persons temporarily removing their face covering for identification purposes; 

•Persons required to remove face coverings for the purpose of receiving medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment; or 

•Persons who have a medical condition precluding the safe wearing of a face covering. 

Another exception requires that “only those employees, volunteers, and contractors in public-facing work spaces are required to wear face coverings as specified in this Directive.”

The directive also encourages a posture of education among public health agencies and law enforcement, “reserving the imposition of penalties...only for the most egregious, repeat violations that put the public at risk.” 

Businesses and event sponsors have the right under the directive to “deny entry, refuse service, or ask any person to leave” who does not comply with the directive. 

The directive also allows local governmental entities to enact “more restrictive ordinances” regarding mask use. 

For its part, Cut Bank Police Department will focus on education, said police chief Michael Schultz. 

“Our department is complying with the mask mandate and we’ll educate those who are unaware of it,” Schultz said.

Trends suggest face masks are effective preventing transmission 

of COVID-19

Masks have become a political flashpoint, but evidence available to date indicates that mask use can help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Wearing masks is “a very, very cheap intervention or solution to protecting people from getting COVID-19,” said Dr. Tony Ward, professor and chair of the School of Public and Community Health Sciences at the University of Montana.

 “If you have COVID-19, it’s a semi-effective way of preventing the spread of the disease,” Ward continued. 

People working in health care and those who have COVID-19 need medical-grade masks, but cloth masks – the kind that can easily be made at home – provide satisfactory protection to “folks who are going and running into the store,” Ward said. 

When the mask covers the nose and mouth, the fibers in the fabric catch water droplets that exit the wearer’s nose and mouth. 

“A cloth mask will do a decent job of preventing those large water droplets from escaping the mask,” Ward explained.

While mask use is not “fool-proof,” Ward said, “it is something that we can all do to help protect ourselves.”

Most peer-reviewed scientific studies about mask efficacies have thus far compared the spread of COVD-19 in areas where mask use is widespread versus where it is not. Even without randomized, controlled trials – the gold standard in scientific research – trends are emerging in available research that strongly suggest mask use is effective in preventing coro

“There are a lot of what we call cross-sectional studies,” said Holzman. “If you look at places where masking has been adhered to very well, versus where it hasn’t, you see a difference there.”

He continued, “I think it’s important to realize that when we talk about masks, it’s not 100 percent. Nobody is saying it is. But it’s about decreasing your risk, and that’s the goal.”

The dos and don’ts of wearing a face mask

Krapf emphasized that masks should be worn correctly, too. Wearers should wash their hands or use sanitizer before putting the mask on. 

“Be sure it covers your nose and mouth and that it fits snugly against the sides of your face,” Krapf offered. “Make sure you can breathe easily.”

Avoid touching the mask while wearing it, don’t place it on the forehead or around the neck, and handle only the ear loops or ties when removing it. Wash cloth coverings after each use, she continued.

“We all have a part to play in preventing this virus spread, and it may be a while before we get a vaccine,” Ward said. “But in the meantime, there are things we all can do at an individual level to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe.” 

Ward also emphasized the importance of hand washing, the use of hand sanitizer, and social distancing. 

“I think if you follow evidence-based science, it’s pretty clear that [mask use] is one thing we know that works, along with hand washing and social distancing,” Ward said.

Holzman acknowledges that wearing a mask can be inconvenient, but that “it’s a small inconvenience to keep our health and community, and keep our economy going.”

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