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County lifts business hour restrictions

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Establishments remain at half capacity

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – The word of the morning was “difficult” at the Feb. 4 Gallatin Board of Health meeting. The board voted to extend and amend an emergency health rule that restricts businesses hours of operation and capacity to control the spread of COVID-19 in the county with amendments. 

“It’s difficult, it’s a difficult situation,” Health Officer Matt Kelley said a number of times during his presentation to the board. “I would ask you to base your decision on the epidemiology and the science.”

Restaurants, bars, casinos, breweries, distilleries, coffee shops and bowling alleys can stay open until 2 a.m. but must still operate at 50 percent capacity and keep tables socially distanced and limited to groups of six.

“This is not without risk,” Kelley said later in the meeting. “This board just took a big leap of faith and I want the bar owners and restaurant owners to hear that.”

On Feb. 3, Gallatin County reported 312 cases of COVID-19 and eight hospitalizations. Today the county saw 48 confirmed deaths related to the coronavirus. The positivity rate on a seven-day rolling average is currently 5.5 percent, but, Kelley noted, when you remove the Big Sky asymptomatic surveillance testing data, that average climbs to 8 percent.

Kelly also provided an update on vaccine distribution in the county, calling attention to the dangers of emerging virus strains, known as variants. He said although the vaccine will slow transmission, the county lacks enough doses to do so immediately. 

The state distributes vaccines to counties based on the population that qualifies for the current phase, and Kelley says the state has told him that Gallatin County can expect an allocation of 1,300 doses per week.

“The challenge is we don’t have enough vaccine to go around,” Kelley said. “I know that people want to get this vaccine; what we need them to understand is we don’t have enough.”

On Feb. 3 Gov. Greg Gianforte reallocated 19,500 Pfizer doses provided by the federal government to vaccinate residents and staff in long-term care and assisted living facilities. These doses will be distributed to hospitals across Montana in coordination with local public health agencies.

To conclude the meeting, board chair Becky Franks and Kelley reiterated the gravity of the decision they made and called on the community—individuals and business owners alike—to take responsibility in order to prevent further restrictions if the county sees another spike in cases.

“This is a critical few weeks ahead of us,” Franks said. “Probably months. We need to work in unity. That’s what we do in Gallatin County [and] that’s what we do as Montanans.”

Timeline of health rules

April 25, 2020 – Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay at home expires for individuals.

May 4, 2020 – Business able to reopen with limited capacity.

June 1, 2020 – Phase 2 of reopening begins, allowing businesses to open to 75 percent of capacity.

Nov. 6, 2020 – Gallatin County experiences its largest surge of cases to date with an average of 200 new cases per day. In response, the health board votes to enact an emergency health rule stating that restaurants, bars, casinos, breweries, distilleries, coffee shops and bowling alleys must close at 10 p.m., limiting capacity to 50 percent and table groups to six.

Jan. 13, 2021 – Gov. Greg Gianforte removes business restrictions at the state level unless more restrictive local rules are put in place.

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