GOP Governor Candidate, Who Hugged Supporters Without Mask, Went to Concert Linked to COVID Cases

Greg Gianforte, a Republican Montana Representative who is running for state governor, hugged several supporters without wearing a mask after he attended a public concert that has been linked to several new cases of COVID-19.

The Let Freedom Ring Concert—meant to recognize national freedoms secured by military, police and other first-responders—occurred on October 3 in Helena. It had roughly 250 attendees, the maximum allowed by local health orders meant to prevent COVID-19's spread, the Independent Record reported.

Along with three bands, food and merchandise vendors and kids' activities, the event featured socially distanced parking and seating areas with numerous supporters of Republican President Donald Trump in attendance. Many wore hats and shirts displaying his name.

The event's COVID-19 prevention plan was approved by the local health department, and all attendees were all given a disclaimer telling anyone who had tested positive for or displayed symptoms of COVID-19 couldn't attend. The disclaimer also mentioned the governor's mandate requiring facial coverings and mandatory social distancing requirement.

Nevertheless, most attendees didn't wear masks, and local health officials said on Thursday that several newly confirmed COVID-19 cases were linked to the event. While some social media users have criticized the concert organizers, health officials are now trying to contact trace the virus' spread in order to notify other attendees who might've been exposed in hopes that they begin a 14-day quarantine.

Greg Gianforte COVID-19 concert maskless coronavirus Montana
Montana's Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte has been seen hugging supporters while not wearing a face mask after attending a concert that has been linked to several new COVID-19 cases. In this July 2, 2018 photo, he campaigns at the Livingston Roundup Rodeo parade in Livingston, Montana. William Campbell-Corbis/Getty

Gianforte's spokesperson, Travis Hall, told the Associated Press that the gubernatorial candidate led the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the concert and then departed shortly after.

After attending the concert, Gianforte was seen at a campaign stop in Helena, taking off his face mask and hugging supporters.

Gianforte's Democratic challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney, criticized Gianforte for continuing to publicly campaign after attending the concert and demanded that he cancel all future events until testing negative for COVID-19.

In a tweet published on October 16, Cooney wrote, "I've had numerous contacts with@GregForMontana over the last few weeks. After news broke that he attended an event – without a mask – with confirmed COVID cases, I took a COVID-19 test in accordance with public health guidance."

"While I await my results, my opponent is refusing to get tested," Cooney continued in a subsequent tweet. "Congressman, this is about personal responsibility. Stop putting Montanans at risk."

I’ve had numerous contacts with @GregForMontana over the last few weeks.

After news broke that he attended an event – without a mask – with confirmed COVID cases, I took a COVID-19 test in accordance with public health guidance. 1/2

— Mike Cooney (@CooneyforMT) October 16, 2020

Jake Eaton, Gianforte's campaign manager, accused Cooney of politicizing the pandemic. Newsweek contacted Gianforte's campaign for comment.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Drenda Niemann, health officer for the Lewis and Clark public health department, said "Gatherings of this nature, and at this time, can quickly turn into super-spreader events.... We simply need to quickly identify cases and their close contacts if we are to have a chance at containing the disease and preventing an outbreak."

October 15 marked Montana's highest ever daily toll for newly confirmed coronavirus cases, with 722 reported on that day. As of the same date, the state ranks 43th amongst U.S. states with the highest overall number of confirmed cases. The state has had 21,087 cases and 230 related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The state's increasing case numbers are partly connected to school reopenings. At least 891 students and employees in Montana schools have contracted the virus since the start of the school year, according to the Billings Gazette.