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Missoula community questions new state laws impacting COVID-19

Missoula City-County Health Department
Posted at 8:34 AM, Sep 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-24 10:34:06-04

MISSOULA — New state laws affecting COVID-19 mitigation strategies are tying the hands of local officials, and community members are asking why.

“I have community members here in Missoula, asking me as the health officer why am I not doing more," D'Shane Barnett, Missoula City-County Health Officer told MTN News.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier echoed a similar sentiment.

“What I'm hearing from my constituents is, why don't you mandate masks? Why don't you limit crowd sizes, so that you don't have a ton of folks bunching up," Strohmaier said.

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According to Strohmaier and Barnett, that reason is because of new legislation like House Bill 257. That bill prohibits local boards of health and health officers from certain actions that restrict business, according to its title.

"House Bill 257 from last legislative session really hamstrung local government in terms of its ability to take proactive measures to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 which has yielded uncontrollable spread throughout Montana," Strohmaier said.

House Bill 702, 121, and 632 also changed the dynamic of local health boards and elected officials regarding public health.

MTN News caught up with Anthony Johnstone, the University of Montana Helen and David Mason Professor of Law, who specializes in State Constitutional Law and Legislation.

"There are actually a couple of bills that became law, right towards the end of the session dealing with this issue of local health officials authority to deal with a pandemic. And, yeah, in general, the thrust is to pair back their powers and require more involvement by local elected officials," UM law professor Anthony Johnstone

Johnstone said there are valid questions surrounding the nature of these new laws and if there is any legal flexibility to mitigate COVID locally.

“Because of ambiguities in the way that those new laws interact, along with existing law, which actually still imposes duties on local health officers to try to prevent the spread of communicable disease. There are several real questions about just what counties can do now," Johnstone said.

Strohmaier and Barnett shared a sense of frustration surrounding what to do about these new provisions.

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"I wish I had the answer. if I had the answer, I would do everything I could to put it into action and scream to the rafters, but the fact of the matter is, with the situation that our state legislature has put us in. I don't think that there is an answer at the local level, they took the answer away from us," Barnett said.

According to Strohmaier, defying these new state laws with local restrictions just isn’t a valid route for commissioners.

“They would not be able to be enforced and they would not stand up in a court," Strohmaier said.