Gathered with supporters in the parking lot at Action Electric in Billings Thursday, Greg Gianforte spoke of lifting the state's economy past its COVID-19 slump by supporting local industry.
Gianforte is Montana's lone U.S. Representative and is making a second run for the governorship after losing to Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016. He used his stop at Action Electric to talk about his economic plan for the state and was introduced at the event by his running mate, Kristen Juras.
"The path forward is clear," Gianforte said. "We gotta get our businesses open again."
COVID-19 was the backdrop to much of Gianforte's remarks on bulking up the state's economy. He noted how the shutdowns in the spring harmed and even killed off many businesses across the state.
"This coronavirus threw us a curve ball," he said.
He pointed to the last 16 years under Democrat governors Brian Schweitzer and then Bullock, describing them as dampers on the state's full economic potential. Gianforte said his business plan for the state will help speed Montana's economic growth.
Bullock's Wednesday order for state residents to wear face masks as Montana works to contain an explosion in COVID-19 cases did not come up. Still, of the 30 or so gathered with Gianforte Thursday, only a few were wearing masks. (The governor's face mask order applies to outdoor gatherings of 50 or more.)
Gianforte later said he trusted Montanans to do what's best to protect their health and the health of their neighbors. They don't need mandates, he said.
Montana reported its first four COVID-19 cases on March 13; it hit 1,000 cases three and a half months later on July 1. From there, it took just two weeks to hit 2,000 cases and by Thursday, the state was at a cumulative case count of 2,231 and 35 deaths.
Later, speaking specifically to Bullock's mask order and other decisions made during the state's COVID-19 response, Gianforte said, "I'm not going to second guess the decisions that have been made up to this point."
If he wins in November and takes office in January, Gianforte said his focus on the novel coronavirus would be keeping the state's most vulnerable populations safe and encouraging personal responsibility from the state's residents to help stop the spread. He's hopeful a vaccine will be ready by the end of the year or earlier next year.
After his remarks, Gianforte took questions from his supporters. The first question focused on on a right-wing conspiracy theory that there is widespread manipulation by states of COVID-19 case numbers. The questioner wanted to know if Gianforte would check into Montana's numbers and ensure the state wasn't manipulating its COVID-19 data.
Gianforte didn't respond directly, instead telling the woman that his administration would do a thorough top-to-bottom review of each department to make sure each was properly functioning and that workers and directors were held accountable for their performance like they would be in the business world.
Finally, he was asked if schools should open in the fall. He said students want to be back and parents want them to go back. He trusts that local school districts will be able to tackle the problem.
"It's critically important we find a way to safely open schools," he said.
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