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Gallatin County extends mask mandate

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Board to vote on business restriction amendments at Feb. 4 meeting

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – The Gallatin County Health Board at a Jan. 20 meeting extended the countywide mask mandate, which was set to expire today, and discussed an amendment that would allow bars, restaurants, casinos, breweries and distilleries to remain open until midnight. The amendment will be further discussed and voted on at a Feb. 4 meeting.

Gallatin Health Officer Matt Kelley presented scientific data and epidemiological studies that support that the county’s current health rules slow the spread of COVID-19. Because the virus is spread through respiratory droplets and half of all transmissions are from asymptomatic individuals, face coverings greatly reduce sick individuals, hospitalizations and ultimately, fatalities.

The health department also conducted a preliminary study that interviewed those who had recently tested positive for the virus. It revealed that a significant number of those individuals had visited a restaurant, bar or gym beforehand.

“It’s important to understand that that the purpose—the intention—of these rules in many cases as they relate to businesses, is to allow a situation where businesses can continue to operate in the long term,” Kelley said. “If we have a hospital system that is overwhelmed, if we have a populous that is afraid to go out into public … that’s not good for any businesses.”

In addition to data, Kelley extended the local health rules over concerns that the health department may not be able to acquire enough vaccines as well as on the new, more contagious COVID-19 variant, which has the potential to greatly overwhelm our healthcare system.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, Gallatin County reported 41 new cases of COVID-19, 588 current active cases and 11 hospitalizations. A total of 41 residents have died related to the virus, just as the U.S. passed a grim milestone on Jan. 19—400,000 total deaths, a number, Kelley notes, is likely underestimated.

While Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded business restrictions on Jan. 13, Montana’s local health boards are allowed by law to contain of the spread of communicable diseases in their county by issuing more restrictive health rules. These local health rules take precedence over state mandates.

The board also voted to continue a suit against Rocking R Bar following a Jan. 14 request from Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen to drop the case. After a Nov. 6 health rule requiring bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m., Rocking R Bar did not comply for “quite some period of time,” according to Marty Lambert, who represents the Gallatin City-County Health Department in the case. The court ruled in favor of the county.

Health Board Chair Becky Franks said she is in support of continuing the case because, like all health rules, businesses are not allowed to pick and choose which rules they want to follow. 

“Sanitary measures and health rules are in place for a reason and [businesses] do have to follow them,” she said.

The health board also voted unanimously to extend two additional local health rules that have been in affect since the beginning of the pandemic: restricting visitation in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and requiring a 10-day quarantine period for those who test positive for COVID-19 or those in close contact with a positive case.

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