By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BOZEMAN – “We’re not quite there yet,” said Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley at a special April 5 Board of Health meeting at which the board voted to extend two, and rescind two, local health rules related to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Although vaccines are getting into arms at a steady pace, the county is still a concerning hotspot for the virus as the weather warms and tourism season reignites for the summer.
The two extended rules, which will be revisited at a meeting in early May, are the local mask mandate, and the Phase 2 of reopening related to business capacity restrictions. Starting today, April 5, restaurants and bars can increase their table capacity from six to eight, and reduced the distance between bar seating from 6 feet to 3 feet.
“This is for me the hardest rule to find solutions to because it impacts people’s livelihoods in a number of ways and we take that very seriously,” Kelley said. “We have some rules related to group size that seek to limit contact between individuals to limit the spread of the disease.”
Kelley cited the current vaccination rate—which sits at around 28 percent—as well as the rising COVID-19 case numbers—the seven-day rolling average is currently 35.2 per 100,000 residents—as concerning data points to keep health rules in place and ensure the safety of the more vulnerable in our community.
“It’s everybody’s right to be healthy and to feel safe,” said board member Seth Walk. “And just because you might not get a severe disease doesn’t necessarily mean our job is over. And our job is to keep folks safe. Nobody deserves to get sick.”
Most board members agreed, with the exception of Joe Skinner and Chris Budeski, who both voted against the mask mandate extension. The mandate, which has been in place since the county adopted former Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide mask mandate July 15, has been largely supported by local businesses, mentioned Kelley, and is an effective tool to curbing the spread of symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals as vaccines roll out in the community.
The board also voted to rescind two existing COVID-19 health rules: one that enforced a quarantine and isolation requirement, and another that limited visitation at local nursing homes and assisted living facilities. According to Kelley, the county has “almost never used” the quarantine and isolation rule and rescinding these will change very little. Kelley asserted that while these rules are no longer in effect, that contact tracers will continue to ask those who are COVID-19 positive or in close contact with a case, to quarantine for 10 days.
The county mask mandate expires May 27 and the current business capacity restrictions expire on May 10—the board has plans to meet before then to reconsider both.