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By Griffen Smith
Pathfinder 

Missoula County requires masks in public spaces, with exceptions

 


MISSOULA - The Missoula City-County Health Department board voted unanimously to require facemasks in every indoor public space in the county at their July 9 meeting. They received over 4,000 comments from the public before the hearing, of which roughly half were processed. The processed comments showed 80% support for the initiative. The ruling goes into effect immediately and makes face masks the new normal as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the county and Montana.

“Our cases are up and they continue to go up, our number of contacts are going up,” said Ellen Leahy, Missoula County Health Officer. “This rule gets people to wear the mask in order to not further spread disease, in this case COVID-19.”

As defined by the order, a face covering is defined as a cloth, paper or disposable face covering that covers the nose and mouth that does not have an exhalation valve. This includes medical-grade masks but does not include face shields.

While employers must enforce the order and are required to provide masks for employees, they are not required to supply them for their customers. Employees are not required to wear masks if they are not interacting with the public and can socially distance by six feet or are working alone in a separate office. Other exceptions to mandatory masks include while eating or drinking in a restaurant, when engaging in activities that make wearing a face covering impractical or unsafe such as strenuous exercise or swimming and for children under age 12.

Health Promotion Division Director Cindy Farr explained in an interview following the board meeting that the decision to exclude the requirement for children under the age of 12 was two-fold.

First the County received a lot of comments and concerns from childcare providers about keeping masks on young children. They pointed out there is a higher risk of transmission when children are touching their face and playing with the mask. Childcare workers will have to be touching the children’s faces as well.

Second, it was a good cut-off for school age children since age 12 is typically junior high students. For schools that are elementary only, they would not have to require masks for some students and not others. The Health Department added that school districts concerned about a grade level having a mix of masked and unmasked students can create their own policy for masking that grade.

Farr said masks are still recommended for children ages two and up since they can still get the virus and spread it. Businesses have the option to require masks for children under the age of 12.

In addition to the exceptions outlined in the Order, businesses and non-profits are required to provided accommodations for employees and customers if required by State and Federal disabilities laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Even though the ADA does not have any rules that address the required use of face masks by state and local governments or private business owners, the Health Department references a disability issues brief provided by ADA July 8 regarding face masks policies and reasonable accommodations that must be made for those with disabilities.

According to the ADA brief, the Center for Disease Control states a person who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated or unable to remove a face mask without assistance should not wear one. Examples include: respiratory disabilities; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); severe anxiety or claustrophobia; autism; cerebral palsy or someone who uses mouth control devices.

“This does not necessarily mean that those who meet these exceptions can be in indoor places but it does mean that businesses must make accommodations for someone who cannot wear a face covering such as curbside pick-up or delivery,” said Farr in her July 13 daily briefing.

Missoula County coronavirus cases rose drastically in the last two weeks to 56 active cases as of July 9. At the beginning of June, the county counted no active COVID-19 cases. Farr said that the county tracked 50% of their cases through contact tracing and the other half to travel and community spread.

She added that most cases are tied to people under 40, a good sign for the county as less cases are in at-risk groups. However, she noted the virus is still moving through the community.

“We are spreading this among ourselves. It is your family and friends that you give this to,” said Farr.

Governor Steve Bullock advocated for mask wearing on a call with reporters July 2.

“We don’t have to be like these other states that take steps backwards if we again raise our guard,” Bullock said. “One of the most important ways we can raise that guard is to make wearing a mask a habit, normalized.”

Bullock, however, did not mandate mask wearing for the state. Instead he asked the Montana Chamber of Commerce President to rally for mask use in businesses. Along with the statewide chamber, industry groups like the restaurant and hotel hospitality associations asked their member businesses to require masks for their employees.

While the rest of the state does not require masks, Missoula County now requires businesses, nonprofits and government spaces to enforce mask policies, or else they can be liable to lawsuits. Farr explained in an interview that if the Health Department receives a complaint, the environmental health sanitarian will contact the business, explain the order and ask how the Health Department can help the business implement the order.

“It is more of an educational visit,” said Farr. “Obviously, if we get multiple complaints there will be more follow-up visits and may result in action.”

Anna Conley, a deputy attorney for the Missoula County courthouse, said there is a chance an individual can receive a misdemeanor for not following the rules.

“This rule and order is not directed at individuals but at businesses and operators of indoor public spaces. The idea of this rule is to regulate an indoor space, not an individual’s action,” said Conley. “An individual who refuses to wear a mask cannot be subject to criminal penalty under this rule of order.”

To read the full order visit https://www.seeleylake.com/home/customer_files/article_documents/face_covering_rule_and_order_approved_070920.pdf

For more information regarding the ADA face covering policies visit https://www.adasoutheast.org/ada/publications/legal/ada-and-face-mask-policies.php

**Editor's Note - This story has been updated to clarify the ADA Disability Issues Brief that the Health Department refers to regarding reasonable accommodations for employees and customers with disabilities. The ADA's brief was based on CDC guidelines for face covering use and recommended accommodations for businesses and nonprofits.

 

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