A bill that would protect businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits is rapidly progressing through the Montana legislature after the state's Republican governor said the measure was necessary to create a statewide mask mandate instituted by his Democratic predecessor. to lift.
Gov. Greg Gianforte also said more vulnerable Montana residents should receive COVID-19 vaccines before lifting the mandate that former government Steve Bullock implemented in July.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Montana is joining at least 20 other states considering liability protection against claims related to COVID-19 for businesses, health care providers or educational institutions.
The House Businesses and Labor Committee held a hearing on the bill on Friday after the Senate passed the bill by 37-13 votes earlier this week.
Republican lawmakers, with a majority in both the House and Senate, say the measure is needed to reopen the state's economy after an economic downturn triggered by the pandemic.
Under the bill, companies cannot 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 do not have to meet federal or state mask or temperature control requirements if they remain in place.
"This is not a bill for immunity," said sponsor Senator Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. "It's about people doing their best and then getting sued. We want to encourage people to do the best, open their businesses and get started."
Fitzpatrick said the bill was written with support and guidance from the governor's office.
Gianforte said Friday that he is encouraged by the progress on the bill, but would have to wait for it to land on his desk to see if it was enough to lift the mask requirement.
The governor also said that not enough vulnerable residents had been vaccinated to remove the mandate, and encouraged Montana residents to continue wearing masks to reduce the spread of the virus. By Friday, only 14,000 Montana residents – less than 2% of the state's population – had received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine needed to achieve immunity.
The liability measure is gaining widespread support from industry groups in the state, who say it would enable their companies to operate with more confidence during the pandemic. Opponents of the measure say it would provide general protection for businesses and the medical industry from legitimate lawsuits.
Michelle Zizian, a resident of Gardiner, a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, said the bill could harm the city's economy by allowing tourism industry employers to “ endanger '' workers. to bypass & # 39 ;.
As of a week ago, there had been 32 lawsuits in the state related to COVID-19, but only two would be affected by the legislation, said Al Smith, executive director of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association. Both are aimed at long-term care facilities where residents have died of the virus.
Smith said that existing Montana law already protects companies from "frivolous" lawsuits, making it redundant.
“As for a lawsuit explosion – it just didn't happen in Montana,” he said.
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