- Associated Press - Monday, February 1, 2021

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana House lawmakers voted Monday to advance a bill that would protect businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits, a step the Republican governor said was necessary to remove a statewide mask mandate.

Gov. Greg Gianforte endorsed the move last week during his State of the State address, saying it would allow businesses to safely open during the pandemic and move “away from impractical government mandates.” He has also said more vulnerable Montana residents would have to receive COVID-19 vaccines before he lifts the mask mandate put in place by his Democratic predecessor.

As of Monday, almost 27,000 Montana residents - representing 2.5% of the state population - had received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Under the bill, businesses could not be sued by individuals exposed to the coronavirus on their premises, except in cases of “gross negligence” or when businesses intentionally spread the virus. Business owners would not be required to uphold federal or state mask requirements or temperature-check requirements if they remain in place.

The bill was advanced by the Republican-dominated House in a preliminary 66-33 vote largely along party lines. The House will vote on the bill for a third and final time later this week. The measure has already passed a vote in the Senate and could land on Gianforte’s desk next week.

Montana joins at least 20 other states that are considering protections against liability claims related to COVID-19 for businesses, health care providers and educational institutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Proponents of the bill say it is necessary in order to reopen businesses that have not operated during the pandemic out of fear of being sued over their handling of the pandemic.

Opponents said the bill would give businesses immunity even if they put their customers and employees in danger of contracting the virus.

“This bill actually lets folks who are bad actors evade accountability for creating an unsafe workplace. It undermines businesses that have been responsible, have spent time and money creating a safe workplace for their employees, and it leaves thousands of Montana workers vulnerable,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena.

Rep. Mark Noland, a Republican from Bigfork, said the bill would prevent frivolous lawsuit relating to the pandemic as long as businesses owners are “making good faith efforts.”

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