HELENA — The Montana House Republican majority Wednesday endorsed a bill that says businesses can not be required to enforce local public-health orders, such as mandates to wear a face-mask or limit customer numbers.
House Bill 257, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, also says businesses cannot be penalized for not following any local ordinance or public-health order that denies customers access to their services.
Public-health orders during the Covid-19 pandemic “have compelled private business to be their enforcement arm … through fear, with threats,” Hinkle said on the House floor. “This has placed our businesses between a rock and a hard place.”
The House voted 66-34 for HB257, with all but one Republican in favor. The bill faces a final House vote Wednesday before advancing to the state Senate.
Democrats, who opposed the measure, acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic and orders to try to control its spread have hurt many businesses.
But they also said HB257 will “destroy” public health efforts and handcuff government in responding to any future outbreaks of a deadly communicable disease.
“My real concern with this legislation is, it’s fighting the last war,” said Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula. “Constraining our health departments over the tough times we’ve had in this last year negates our ability to respond flexibly and intelligently with the next pandemic.”
HB257 says cities, counties, local health boards or a state emergency plan cannot take any action that “compels a private business” to deny a customer access to their premises or denies the customer access to the business’ goods or services.
It also says that if an ordinance or order takes that step, businesses cannot be penalized for not enforcing it.
In arguing for the bill, Republicans said businesses had been put in the difficult position of having to enforce face-mask mandates or other regulations, or face possible penalties or lawsuits from local officials.
That burden has led to many businesses alienating customers and, in some cases, having to close their business, they said.
“In the Flathead, almost everyone who’s reached out to me has said … Montana’s government, either city, local or state, does not have the authority to do these things,” said Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell. “This bill is to designed to listen to them. … This bill is to make sure we never make the mistakes we made on Covid again.”
But Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said the bill essentially prohibits a county health board from issuing any regulation or order that interferes with the relationship between a business and its customers.
The “great majority” of businesses in Gallatin County are thankful for the work of county health officers, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he said – but that a vocal few felt otherwise.
“I want to commend the public health officials for their efforts, in Gallatin County and other counties,” Stafman said. “This should be an easy `no’ vote. … The bill itself destroys public health at every level one could imagine.”