HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Wednesday that he is removing existing health mandates issued by his predecessor, saying the restrictions are harmful to the state's businesses.

Gianforte, a Republican, said his goal is to move away from specific mandates and toward “personal responsibility.”

Under the new rules, which take effect Friday, restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos will no longer be required to close at 10 p.m., a requirement put in place by Democratic former Gov. Steve Bullock in November as the state reached an apex in daily reported COVID-19 cases.

Gianforte also removed capacity limits for businesses, instead encouraging them to follow public health guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and industry groups. Under the Bullock-issued rule, restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos were limited to 50% capacity.

The new rules remove limits on the size of public gatherings. The previous regulation stated that gatherings where social distancing isn’t possible were limited to 25 people.

Counties are still permitted to issue stricter local health mandates. Health officials in some counties, including Gallatin and Missoula, have indicated they intend to keep in place certain stricter local measures that are currently in place, including gathering-size limits and capacity limits for certain businesses.

A statewide mask mandate issued in July remains in place. Gianforte said last week that he would keep the requirement until more vulnerable people received the COVID-19 vaccine and the Legislature passed a law protecting businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

“I look forward to a day when we can all take off our masks, throw them in the trash and get on with our lives in a safe manner,” Gianforte said on Wednesday. “Until we get there, I continue to choose to wear a mask and I encourage others to do the same.”

So far, 42,000 Montana residents have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the governor said.

The next phase of the vaccine distribution, which will cover Montana residents ages 70 and older and those with underlying health conditions, will begin the week of Jan. 18, Gianforte said, adding that lowering the age threshold would be “a logical next step” as the state progresses in the vaccination effort.

Montana health officials have reported nearly 88,000 COVID-19 cases since the onset of the pandemic, including 597 new cases reported on Wednesday. The state has reported 1,069 deaths related to the virus. Of those deaths, 75% have been of individuals ages 70 and older.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus in Montana has dipped below 200 after reaching more than 400 in November.

“That could spike back up. We're not out of the woods yet, but the trend is encouraging," Gianforte said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.


Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.