The State of Montana Covid Denying Legislators

Mask Off: GOP Unfazed by COVID Deaths, Make Life-or-Death Gambles

BREAKING UPDATE: Well, it looks like the state of Montana’s COVID-denying legislators will be getting their own coffee when they begin their legislative session Monday.

In an act of resistance against the Montana legislature’s plan to limit COVID-related safety precautions in the state Capitol, committee session staffers will work remotely for at least the first two weeks of the imminent session. The decision to effectively protest the session is a blow to the Republican majorities in both chambers who bucked the advice of health officials when they decided no pandemic restrictions will be in place in 2021.

The implications of this unprecedented move to boycott the session are unknown, though it could hamper Republican’s plans to immediately ram through an ultra-conservative agenda.

Susan Fox, the executive director of Montana’s Legislative Services Division, made the announcement to all legislators on Wednesday evening. Her email, which was obtained by the News Station, reveals that legislative staffers will, unlike many Republican legislators, be taking coronavirus seriously. At the end of the two week ‘remote work period’ leaders will reevaluate the situation and “modify as needed.” 

“These are unprecedented times with much [uncertainty],” Fox wrote. “Many decisions this session will be made as the need arises, including how committees are staffed.”

In a follow-up email to reporters, Fox added that staffers who need to complete certain tasks in-person will wear masks and practice social distancing, even if Republican lawmakers aren’t requiring masks in the complex.

MISSOULA, Mont. — How many legislators, staffers, and police officers have to die from COVID-19 before the GOP starts taking their own lives — let alone the rest of ours — seriously?

Just yesterday, Louisiana congressman-elect Luke Letlow died after turning 41 earlier this month. He had no underlying health conditions but succumbed to coronavirus less than two weeks after testing positive. Earlier this month, Minnesota state Sen. Jerry Ralph died from the virus at 76. In New Hampshire 71-year-old Richard Hinch died one week after being sworn in as Speaker of the state House. And in Wyoming, state Rep. Roy Edwards died of coronavirus on Nov. 2 before being reelected by his now former-constituents the following day.  

“It’s possible there will be members that die”

Sen. Jason Ellsworth

These deceased lawmakers have more in common than being prematurely ripped from their loved ones and constituents alike: They were all conservative Republicans. 

All of these tragic deaths, however, seem lost on Montana’s conservative legislators. Despite proudly adhering to the “pro-life” mantle, the state’s Joint Rules Committee recently decided to drastically limit COVID safety precautions in the Capitol during their 2021 legislative session, which begins this Monday, Jan. 4. The string of conservatives dying at the hands of an invisible, yet vicious, virus isn’t causing them to change their tunes. Rather, they’re doubling down, even if it means potentially ushering in their own demise, taking out their fellow lawmakers or even the support staff — including members of law enforcement who have devoted their lives to protecting and serving the very lawmakers who may end up killing them — needed to run expansive legislative chambers. 

“I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick. It’s possible there will be members that die,” state Sen. Jason Ellsworth (R) — a vocal member of the rules committee — told his colleagues earlier this month, after three conservative state legislators had already died from COVID-19. “But that possibility is there regardless of if we’re here or not.” 

Sen. Ellsworth did not respond to a request for comment.

Ellsworth’s dark logic won the day. He and his GOP allies on the Joint Rules Committee succeeded in pushing through their new non-existent COVID policies. For starters, they determined masks won’t be required in the Capitol building for legislators or even visitors in the New Year. They also decided — once again voting along party lines — social distancing will not be enforced on the Capitol grounds, even as health experts of all political stripes say their lack of pandemic-specific rules is batshit crazy.

Photo by Max Savage Levenson

“Our cases continue to be at a concerning level. We’re barely keeping up with the work that is associated with our county residents. And so is the hospital, for that matter,” Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Drenda Niemann — who has cautioned lawmakers from convening in-person — told Montana Public Radio. Niemann isn’t exaggerating. As of this writing, the state has seen over 80,000 cases and 939 reported deaths. Having lawmakers convene in Helena, the state capital, will likely exacerbate cases in the small city of 33,000 people.

Legislators did approve remote voting, however. And although they also established a COVID-19 Response Panel, health officials aren’t expecting an about-face, because six of the eight members are staunch Republicans unlikely to waver in their opposition to more stringent health measures, even as the pandemic intensifies and rages on. 

Throughout the rulemaking process, Democrats and community members alike voiced concerns over the lack of robust safety protocols. They raised alternate proposals, like delaying the session until a vaccine is widely available or conducting the entire session remotely, but any strategy that didn’t involve business as usual in Helena has been largely ignored.

The Joint Rules Committee’s final decision is likely a portent of what’s to come during the session itself. After 16 years of collective Democratic rule from the governor’s mansion — Govs. Steve Bullock and Brian Schweitzer before him — Republicans are itching to unleash an avalanche of conservative legislation that’s been routinely vetoed for nearly two decades; incoming Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte (the former congressman who likes to break the law and body slam unsuspecting reporters who ask pesky questions about his most basic policy leanings) is way more likely to sign any Fox News-approved bill that comes across his desk. 

The stack of pent-up conservative wet dreams ranges from dismantling abortion rights, amplifying environmental deregulation, weakening labor rights, drastically loosening campaign finance oversight and pushing back on recreational marijuana, even after their own voters resoundingly approved the measure just this November. And Republicans are itching to wage these culture wars in person, mask-free and with or without some of their currently living political opponents and allies alike. 

Montana’s no Vietnam

As coronavirus swept across the nation this spring — before continuing to unleash death and economic mayhem this fall and winter — other state governments took drastic, even creative, measures to keep their own ranks safe. The 100-member Arkansas House, for instance, took over a 5,600-seat college basketball arena to hold a socially distant special session in March. In Pennsylvania, 114 out of 200 members of the House opted to stay at home and either texted, emailed or called in their votes to a colleague present in the chamber. 

Elsewhere, countries like New Zealand and Vietnam took the virus seriously, and witnessed remarkably lower mortality rates than here in America. As of this writing, only 60 people have died in those two countries, collectively. That statistic hasn’t budged in weeks, even as the tragic body count of conservative policy makers here in the U.S. has risen.  

But Montana’s no Vietnam. In advance of the upcoming session, lawmakers met several times at the statehouse to vote on committee leaders and handle other logistics. During some of these hearings, hardly any Republicans wore masks. As the Montana Free Press reported, the virus hasn’t stopped Montana conservatives from back-slapping, hugging and huddling in close proximity.

It’s already gotten personal, too. During a hearing in early December, state Rep. Sharon Steward-Peregoy — a Democrat from Crow Agency (the headquarters of the Crow Reservation) who has seen 61 deaths in her county, as of this writing — echoed public health officials and argued masks keep Montanans safe. 

“Ultimately it’s about the safety of our constituents. It’s about the people we serve,” Steward-Peregoy told her colleagues. “If you have not seen or personally seen a family member who cannot talk to a loved one who is fighting for their life in the ICU, then please don’t talk about this abstractly.”

In response, state Rep. Barry Usher (R-MT), stood and dismissed her fact-based argument as “emotional” and “insulting.”

The mustachioed, silver-haired Republican — who represents Montana’s biggest city, Billings — went on to argue masks are not the solution but are actually the problem. 

“Think about it,” Usher began. “My body has its own mask system. I exhale what my body doesn’t want. When you have a mask on, it holds it in. It holds it in, so you can re-breathe that negative that your body just put out.”

Photo by Max Savage Levenson

Steward-Peregoy did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but when asked to provide evidence on why he contends masks and social distancing are ineffective (which can be found on the CDC or Montana’s own health department’s websites), Usher cited a debunked theory that inaccurate death classifications are inflating COVID-related death rates. 

“John Hopkins University [sic] did a study that showed the death rate in the US between 2019 and 2020 were the same except for the classification of the deaths,” Usher told The News Station, “also until they were forced to take that study down from their web site.”

Many health care professionals and doctors have publicly denounced the notion that COVID-related death counts are being distorted as nothing more than a conspiracy theory, although some cede that determining a cause of death can be complicated.

“As a general rule, if someone dies with COVID, it’s going to be on the death certificate, but it doesn’t mean they died from COVID,” John Fudenberg, the executive director of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, told Kaiser Health News. “If somebody has end-stage pancreatic cancer and COVID, did they die with COVID or from COVID?” 

Incoming Governor Strikes a Contrast

Throughout the rulemaking process, Democratic legislators, who will occupy only 18 of 50 state Senate seats and just 33 of100 House seats this session, have voiced their concerns over the lack of safety protocols. With the rules now finalized and with Republicans showing no willingness to revisit their anti-health care policies, they’re calling out their peers across the aisle for putting everyone at risk.

“There are no safeguards with this. It’s inexcusable. It’s an irresponsible act,” state Sen. Pat Flowers (D) said of the GOP’s new “rules.”

“This building belongs to Montanans, and they deserve to know what the Legislature will do to keep them safe and healthy as they engage with their elected representatives during the upcoming session,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said in a statement after the mask-less rules were adopted.  

“Montana workers and business owners need concrete measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from the Capitol into their communities, not a politicized response that does not take any real action,” she added.

Governor-elect Greg Gianforte — who will be sworn in on January 4 — regularly campaigned without a mask, but has nonetheless struck a tone of (relative) reason compared to the rest of his party. 

Gianforte recently sent a letter to legislative leaders in Helena outlining his own “commonsense” plans for combating coronavirus. Those include wearing a mask himself (which, again, is a change for the sucker-puncher-in-chief), providing masks for visitors at points of entry to government buildings, providing regular testing, and cancelling all public gatherings in the state Rotunda until at least March. 

The governor-elect’s communications team did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Activists are Compelled to Fight in Person

With rules now set and the conservative goals of the legislature becoming clearer, a new conundrum arises for the citizen activists who will be fighting to counter the legislature’s policies: Do they risk their own health by heading to the Capitol, or do they protest on orchestrated Zooms that conservative legislators can easily ignore? 

“The people of Montana elected us, and they have the same right to be present in the halls of the Capitol, but because the Republican majority refuses to abide by even the most basic safety protocols, tens of thousands of Montanans will be left out of the Capitol discussions,” state Sen. Ellie (Hill) Boldman (D) told The News Station. 

“We have a saying in Helena: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” she added. “Through their irresponsible political posturing and refusal to wear masks, they silence our citizens.” 

Marijuana legislation is one issue likely to bring advocates and lobbyists to the Capitol. Based on the 40-odd marijuana-related bills already drafted by members of the legislature, it is likely they will also attempt to water down — or even derail — the dual recreational cannabis initiatives that passed this November with 58% and 57% of the vote, respectively (yep, that’s more than nearly any candidate for statewide office got this year). 

“We will be there lobbying, and unlike some of these Republican state lawmakers, we will be wearing masks and social distancing as much as possible,” Pepper Petersen, who spearheaded the state’s cannabis legalization campaign and is now the president and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild, told The News Station. “We don’t want to get sick, but if they are having the session we will be there advocating that the will of Montana’s voters be respected and [legalization] be implemented in the way and in the time frame the voters approved.” 

“We might be wearing face shields and gloves while we are at the legislature, but we will still be there to protect the will of the people and their continued safe access to cannabis in Montana,” he added.

While activists like Petersen have made it clear that they understand the risks involved, Montana conservatives clearly have not, despite mounting evidence that they are putting themselves, their colleagues, families, constituents, and the entire US economy at risk.

“We’re going to get through this. It’s not going to be unharmed. I mean, this is an epidemic, so nobody can say that nobody’s going to be harmed,” Sen. Ellsworth — the boisterous Republican who is expecting death to accompany the rules package he supports — said during the December committee meeting. “…this allows us to get things done immediately and, you know what, God bless us for taking on this challenge.” 

Max Savage Levenson is a writer and podcast producer living in Missoula, MT. His work has appeared in outlets including Pitchfork, NPR Music, Leafly and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has released precisely one hip-hop album.

Max Savage Levenson is a writer and podcast producer living in Missoula, MT. His work has appeared in outlets including Pitchfork, NPR Music, Leafly and the San Francisco Chronicle. He has released precisely one hip-hop album.

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