Montana’s Face-Off Over Face Masks

Montana’s Face-Off Over Face Masks

What happens when too many people don’t care about saving lives.


In the early days of the pandemic, a white-coated physician from Kalispell, Mont., stood at a podium and issued a dire warning about Covid-19’s death rate.

Except Dr. Annie Bukacek called it the “so-called death rate.”

“Based on inaccurate, incomplete data, people are being terrorized by fearmongers into relinquishing cherished freedoms,” said Bukacek, a pink stethoscope dangling below her double-strand pearl choker, in a YouTube video viewed 870,000 times.

Flash-forward to November, at a county health board meeting in Ravalli County, about 135 miles to the south. In a scene reminiscent of the Before Times, people packed the room on folding chairs inches apart, barefaced and sometimes shouting out their objections to masks and other possible restrictions (“Freedom! Freedom!”), heedless of the flying microbes.

In early December, this time at the copper-domed Montana State Capitol in Helena, a legislative committee met to determine rules for the session that starts in January. In the ornate chamber dominated by Charles Russell’s nearly 12-by-25-foot painting Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole, Republican lawmakers—most unmasked—hugged, shook hands, slapped backs.

When a mask-wearing Democratic representative, Sharon Stewart Peregoy, spoke emotionally about Covid-19’s toll on her Crow Indian Reservation district, her GOP colleague Barry Usher—unmasked—delivered a verbal smackdown. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s a waste of my afternoon. I could be trying to make my business survive through this. Instead, I gotta be up here listening to you guys cry.”

That same debate rages around the country as people flout government-issued directives and advisories, often secure in the knowledge that they won’t be enforced, even as the case numbers climb and health care professionals plead for help.

Some version of “We aren’t the mask police” has been voiced by law enforcement and by state and local governments and agencies in places from South Dakota to Michigan to Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis recently extended a ban on penalties and fines for not respecting mask requirements.

When Idaho’s Republican governor, Brad Little, imposed new restrictions in October, the state’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, pushed back, brandishing a Bible and a handgun in an ad sponsored by a group called the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

But Montana provides a particularly poignant example of what happens when enough people decide that shrugging off or outright opposing preventive measures is preferable to saving lives.

Montana once boasted one of the lowest case rates in the nation. Daily infection cases among the state’s 1 million residents didn’t nudge past 100 until July 10—a day when neighboring Idaho saw 454 new cases and states like California (7,989) and Arizona (4,164) logged thousands.

Then, in a merciless about-face that holds up a mirror to the national crisis, Montana soared for several weeks recently into the ranks of the top 10 for per capita cases.

“Virtually every hospital in Montana is above 80 percent occupancy,” said Montana Hospital Association CEO Rich Rasmussen when we spoke in mid-November.

So many health care workers have either been infected with or exposed to the virus that the state contracted 200 nurses and respiratory therapists from around the country to ease the strain, and National Guard teams stepped into nonmedical roles at hospitals and the state prison.

The coronavirus “is here, and we are in the fire,” Tara Lee, a nurse at the Kalispell Regional Medical Center, told a county health board deadlocked for months on imposing new restrictions. “We needed help two steps ago. Please.”

For the longest time, Montana was a pale island on the national Covid-19 map, even as hot spots flared in surrounding states.

In late April, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock—then in the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican US Senator Steve Daines—sounded a congratulatory note as he lifted a stay-at-home order and announced a gradual reopening of nonessential businesses and places of worship. “There are very few states in the country that can say they have seen the number of positive cases decline over these past weeks,” he said.

Although Bullock would mandate masks in mid-July, he had eased the restrictions on businesses just in time for the magical 16-hours-of-sunlight days that make Montana a summer vacation paradise. Initial fears that Covid-19 would strike a blow to the state’s vital tourism industry faded as people from places hard-hit by the virus flooded in, packing state parks in record numbers, to the point where the locals groused about being shut out.

By the end of June, Covid-19 had killed just 22 people in Montana. Few places seemed safer—so much space, so few people! Locals and tourists alike took to the rivers, trails, and campgrounds. For a few heady weeks, life felt almost normal there.

In Gallatin County, health officer Matt Kelley likened that early-summer grace period to the initial stages of a flood. “You go through a period where you can kind of keep out the floodwaters with sandbags,” he told me. “At some point in time, the floodwaters seep through.”

In Montana, the sandbags failed in mid-July. The long, flat line on the graph charting Covid-19 cases edged ominously upward.

Bill Burg, chair of the Flathead County Health Board, calls himself “a numbers guy.” When the retired CPA uses the term “exponential” to refer to the growth of Covid-19 cases, he’s speaking literally. State data show the leaps and bounds of active cases in Flathead County: September 1, 114; October 1, 585; Novem-ber 1, 883. Burg predicted the number would hit 2,000 by mid-November. He was off by a few days. On November 20, the county saw 2,095 active cases. By December 1, 47 percent of the state’s cumulative 63,693 cases had occurred within the previous 30 days. (Daily cases have fallen steadily since.)

“We’re pushed to the limit,” said Rasmussen, who spent years in Florida before coming to Montana. “In my career, I’ve had to participate in 258 tropical events”—hurricanes, floods—“and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Rasmussen said he’s at a loss to understand why the same people who cheerfully don blaze orange during big-game season so they won’t get shot by other hunters object so strenuously to wearing a bit of cloth so they won’t get a deadly virus.

Tamalee Robinson, then the interim health officer in Flathead County, offered an explanation: “Montanans are fiercely independent, and that doesn’t always bode well for public health.”

Flathead County includes Kalispell, where Bukacek—who goes by “Dr. Annie” and who termed the city’s April emergency declaration “martial law”—practices. She is part of an opposition faction that has paralyzed the county health board, shooting down proposed measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. (Bukacek did not respond to several requests for comment.)

The board, hobbled by a 4-4 split, has twice tried and failed to limit gatherings to 500 people, even with a holiday craft show scheduled.

“As a health care worker, I feel like I’m getting stabbed in the back by half of my community and half of the health board,” said Lee, the Kalispell nurse, speaking at the board’s November meeting.

The acrimonious divide runs like a fault line throughout the state. Ravalli County’s health officer quit in July, saying she had been put in a “no-win situation by the locally elected officials’ decision to disobey the Governor’s directives [on masking] without my input.” She later put her resignation on hold until a new officer could be recruited.

In August, Powell County’s health officer left after a group of residents—upset over the cancellation of a fair and rodeo—confronted her at the hospital where she worked, waving copies of the Constitution and blocking patients from entering.

Then the entire health department in Pondera County resigned in November, citing inadequate pay for the long pandemic hours, a lack of support from the county commission for efforts to prevent the virus’s spread, and “negative talk” in the north-central Montana community.

In Gallatin County—home to Bozeman, the fast-growing college town derisively nicknamed “Boze-angeles” for the influx of moneyed outsiders—health officer Kelley has held his ground despite near-daily protests outside his home. “From where they’re standing in front of my house, they can see the hospital where we have 20 people [with Covid-19], some in intensive care,” he said. “It can be frustrating.”

And on the day after Thanksgiving, Robinson handed in her resignation as Flathead County’s interim health officer, citing a “toxic environment” that prompted the departure of several department staffers. Widespread opposition beyond the dissident health board members made it impossible to carry out her mandated duties of protecting the community’s health, she said. “The sheriff’s department has come out and said they will not do anything other than education. The county attorney’s office says [the regulations] are unenforceable. The [county] commissioners have come out publicly against all of it, and the health board has voted against it…. There’s no support for the department at any level.”

As the numbers trended upward in Montana, the chasm between the factions yawned wider and deeper.

In November, Bitterroot Valley emergency room doctors issued pleas for people to wear masks and follow other precautions, saying, “We are on the brink of disaster.” That same day, the county health board meeting ran for more than three hours as unmasked residents railed against such measures.

Among those in attendance were Alan and Terri Lackey, who have become a fixture at county meetings, protesting masks and restrictions and citing Internet research they say proves these measures ineffective. Alan Lackey, who drives a white 1996 Isuzu Trooper flying two American flags and with a “Make America great again” sign on the door, questioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mortality statistics at the meeting. He said he wanted “just to get back to reality here in Ravalli County,” adding, “I just don’t see people falling, the bodies stacking up.”

Terri Lackey shares her husband’s skepticism about Covid-19’s toll. “I have so much common sense, it oozes out my ears,” she said. “Old people in nursing homes, that’s what they usually do. They die.”

Earlier in the meeting, municipal leaders sought the health board’s support for action on preventive measures, only to be rebuffed. “At what point would there be more enforcement? Is that even on the table?” asked Hamilton City Councilwoman Claire Kemp.

“For me personally, it’s basically status quo… or we pull the trigger on a mandate with citations associated with it, and I’m not in favor that,” a health board member responded.

In Flathead County, when the state tried to take action against five businesses it accused of repeatedly violating the governor’s mask directive, a judge threw out the case. Now those businesses are suing the state.

There’s a lot of “not my job” when it comes to enforcing the directives meant to protect Montana’s residents, and a lot of frustration as a result.

“I’d say any time local political officials are deliberately avoiding their responsibilities to citizens, you’ve got a real challenge to the rule of law,” said Raph Graybill, the governor’s chief legal counsel.

Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner points a finger back at state government. “With regards to [the governor’s] directives…it doesn’t really specify whether or not there’s any sort of seniority in terms of enforcement,” he said.

Should the county get involved in enforcement, it could face lawsuits from businesses harmed by the restrictions, Ahner continued, adding that he sees his role as advising health officials on the legal ramifications of their actions. It’s up to the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services to enforce those rules, he argued.

That’s the agency that went after five businesses in Flathead County for allegedly violating the mask directive, a charge one owner vehemently rejected. “It’s a political witch hunt,” said Douglas White, owner of Your Lucky Turn Casino in Bigfork, a town on the shores of Flathead Lake. White accused the Democratic governor—at the time in the midst of his Senate bid—of targeting “high-profile family-owned Christian conservative businesses,” a contention that Graybill wearily contested. “Public health officials had nothing to do with anyone’s Senate campaign,” he said. “This was not politically popular. It did not help anyone’s Senate prospects.” Taking a case to court, such as the unsuccessful one against the Flathead businesses, is “profoundly the exception.”

That kicks enforcement back to the local health departments, whose orders are only as effective as the businesses’ willingness to acquiesce to them. In progressive Missoula County, for instance, most bars and restaurants eventually complied with health department closures after reports that the directives weren’t being followed.

But the outlying counties are as conservative as Missoula is liberal. Voters in Missoula County went for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 60 to 36 percent, results that were nearly evenly flipped in Flathead (where Trump got 64 percent to Biden’s 34) and Ravalli (67 to 31 percent). Statewide, Trump won with 57 percent of the vote, over Biden’s 41 percent.

Walk past the brick storefronts on Kalispell’s Main Street and you might not even know there’s a pandemic. Some stores have signs referencing the governor’s mask directive; others request consideration for fellow customers without specifically mentioning masks. Some have no Covid-related signs at all. Some people wear face masks; many do not.

The same is true of Stevensville, the Bitterroot Valley town of 2,000 where Alan and Terri Lackey created a group—Stand Together for Freedom—to dig in against the state directives. Alan Lackey calls the health board members “Branch Covidians,” a reference to the apocalyptic religious sect involved in the deadly 1993 raid by federal agents outside Waco, Tex. “It’s like a cult, this Covid thing,” he said, terming masks “a symbol of compliance and control.”

“I’ll be damned if I wear one,” he added. “I will go to my grave before I wear one.”

And there it is: the attitude that makes law enforcement agencies turn their attention elsewhere and health officers throw up their hands and quit.

In Helena, despite testimony from health care workers and community members and the opposition of local health and government officials, the legislature’s Republican-majority Joint Rules Committee voted along party lines to hold the session that began January 4 in person, without mandating masks, distancing, or tests. “I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick,” said State Senator Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton, in Ravalli County. “It’s a possibility we’ll have members who will die. But that possibility is there irregardless of whether we’re even here or not.”

A day earlier, a group calling itself Stand Up Montana sued Bullock over his mask mandate and other restrictions, citing the loss of business and seeking to overturn his directives. The new governor, Greg Gianforte, has consistently said that, although he plans to wear a mask at the Capitol, he considers the decision a matter of personal responsibility.

By Thanksgiving, Flathead County had lost 39 residents to Covid-19. Robinson’s voice cracked when she spoke to me in November of a health board member who is adamantly opposed to restrictions. “I would like her to be the one to talk to all [of those] families and tell them this is 100 percent survivable,” she said. (Forty-four Flathead County residents had died of Covid-19 as of December 13.)

In her resignation letter, Robinson decried these intractable divisions. “Finally, it’s clear that the underlying motivation of several members of your groups is more closely aligned with ideological biases than the simple desire to do what’s best for the health of the community,” she wrote.

After submitting the letter, she told me in a phone interview, “I’m here watching people die, and no one at any level will do anything about it.”

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