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Health Board restricts business capacity to curb spread of COVID-19

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MT averages 10-15 deaths a day, hospitals, testing system stressed

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – At a Nov. 6 Gallatin City-County Board of Health meeting, alongside slides of COVID-19 case data, Health Officer Matt Kelley presented a series of photos of those who have lost their lives to the virus. He also shared quotes from ICU nurses from Great Falls and Billings, describing harrowing scenes of their quickly-filling critical care units.

“There are faces to these numbers and I don’t want us to lose track of that,” Kelley said.

At the same meeting, following nearly three hours of public comment that echoed concerns of mental health, rising suicide rates, a suffering economy, evictions and strained hospitals, the Health Board unanimously approved revisions to a local health rule that includes restrictions on certain businesses intended to slow transmission of COVID-19. The revisions are not a full reversal to Phase 1, but rather a revision to the existing Phase 2.

The Health Board noted the decision was not taken lightly and that they are aware that restricting capacity puts many members of the community’s livelihoods at stake. However, the rapid growth is difficult for a health department to deal with as it works to protect those in the community and most of the cases they are investigating are directly related to social gatherings.

Business restrictions are as follows:

  • Moving the mandatory closing time for bars, tasting rooms, distilleries, casinos, bowling alleys and restaurants from 12:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and limiting group size at tables to six people.
  • Requiring that higher-risk businesses—gyms and fitness centers, places of assembly, bars, restaurants, distilleries, casinos—limit the number of patrons to 50 percent capacity, down from 75 percent of capacity.
  • Limiting group gatherings to no more than 25 individuals, down from 50, regardless of the ability to physically distance, for both indoor and outdoor events.
  • Exceptions will be made for businesses and organizations where social distancing is most feasible, including houses of worship and other places of assembly.

The health rule passed with an amendment that in the case of conflicting health orders between the state and county, the more restrictive will take precedent.

“These decisions are not taken lightly,” said Health Board Chair Becky Franks. “We have to do everything we can to get some control over the metrics and are only here because the metrics continue to drive in the direction we are not looking for.”

“We’re in for a long winter and I know that this board will get back together when the light starts to show at the end of the tunnel and not make this last longer than we need it to,” Franks added later on in the meeting.

Gallatin County is currently averaging 100 new positive cases per day. As of Nov. 5, 19 people are hospitalized and the county just confirmed its 10th death as a result of COVID-19. Currently, Health Department staff are unable to keep up with contact tracing efforts and the COVID-19 testing system is stressed—some tests are taking over three days to yield results. There are currently outbreaks at several long-term care facilities for seniors and hospitals in some Montana communities and neighboring states are near or at capacity.

“We need our elected leaders to find a way to continue to provide support,” Kelley said. “Frankly this is an attempt to stay open. I understand this is a hard thing for some businesses, but everything I see tells me we’re heading for a long winter and that this is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Kelley says that schools are also feeling strained. As students and staff are quarantined, substitute teachers are hard to come by and Montana State University is even reaching the limit of their quarantine housing.

“We’ve been in constant, near daily conversations with Montana State [University],” Kelley said. “Those conversations had to do with isolation and quarantine housing for students who are on campus and that capacity is being pushed to the limits. MSU is doing great work and doing everything they can to find more housing … but that capacity is being pushed to the limit.”

Kelley cited a study by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for the National Academy of Science. The study revealed that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were more likely to have been in social settings related to bars, restaurants, churches and other large social settings directly prior to their diagnosis. 

In addition, the cases in Gallatin County largely affect individuals between the ages of 20-29. The new restrictions address these data trends while still allowing for places to conduct dinner service, but prevents those larger, more inebriated crowds to emerge further into the night.

“What we do today matters, but it is not going to solve the problem and the community cannot come away from this thinking the board solved the problems,” Kelley added. “We need help from everybody to make this work.”

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