Montana House lawmakers this week voted in favor of a bill that would protect businesses and healthcare providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a move the Republican governor said was necessary to scrap a statewide mask mandate.
Gov. Greg Gianforte approved the move in his State of the State address last week, saying it would allow businesses to open safely during the pandemic and "move away from impractical government mandates." He has also said more vulnerable residents of Montana should receive COVID-19 vaccines before lifting the mask mandate instituted by his Democratic predecessor.
As of Monday, nearly 27,000 Montana residents, representing 2.5% of the state population, had received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Under the bill, companies could not be prosecuted by individuals exposed to the coronavirus on their property, except in cases of "gross negligence" or when companies intentionally spread the virus. Business owners are not required to meet federal or state mask or temperature control requirements if they remain in effect.
The bill was introduced by the Republican-dominated House in a preliminary vote of 66-33, largely along party lines. Later this week, the House will vote on the bill for the third and last time. The measure has already been approved in the Senate and could end up on Gianforte's desk next week.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Montana is joining at least 20 other states that are considering protections against COVID-19 liability claims for businesses, health care providers and educational institutions.
Proponents of the bill say it is imperative to reopen companies that were inactive during the pandemic for fear of being prosecuted for tackling the pandemic.
Opponents said the bill would give companies immunity even if they put their customers and employees at risk of contracting the virus.
“This bill allows people who are bad actors to avoid responsibility for creating an unsafe workplace. It undermines companies that have been responsible, time and money, in creating a safe workplace for their employees, and it leaves thousands of workers in Montana vulnerable, ”said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena.
Rep. Mark Noland, a Republican from Bigfork, said the bill would prevent a frivolous lawsuit related to the pandemic as long as business owners "make efforts in good faith."
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