The Gallatin C
The Gallatin City-County Board of Health voted Monday to extend the county’s face mask mandate into May to help limit the spread of COVID-19.
The board also amended guidelines related to bar and restaurant capacity and rescinded rules related to visitation at long-term care facilities and mandatory quarantine and isolation for those infected with or exposed to COVID-19.
The board plans to meet again in early May to reconsider the mask mandate and reopening rules for businesses.
“We are looking for ways to allow businesses to continue to operate, (and) to operate a bit more freely,” County Health Officer Matt Kelley said.
With COVID-19 cases on a steady incline in Gallatin County in recent weeks, several board members said it isn’t the time to lift the mask mandate, despite pressure to do so.
Gov. Greg Gianforte repealed the statewide mandate in February, and the Legislature is now considering a measure in a bill to distribute American Rescue Plan funds that would decrease allocations to local governments with stricter health guidelines than the state by 20%.
Kelley said when the board first scheduled Monday’s meeting a few weeks ago, he was hopeful that it would be able to consider a shift to a rule recommending face masks in public settings, rather than a requirement.
But Kelley noted the increase in case counts in recent weeks — the seven-day rolling average for COVID-19 cases on April 1 was 35.2 per 100,000 people, and seven-day positivity rate was 11.4% on March 30 — complicates the situation.
“It does make some sense to me that when you have thousands of people who have not yet been able to get access to the vaccine, we have variants circulating and we have high case numbers than anywhere in the state that this is one of the provisions that really doesn’t have a lot of costs to businesses and in fact some businesses are asking us to do it,” Kelley said.
A majority of the health board agreed, voting 7-2 to extend the mandate into May. County Commissioner Joe Skinner and board member Chris Budeski voted against the measure.
Board member Seth Walk said wanting the pandemic and mask mandates to be over and the reality of when they will be over are different.
Walk said it makes sense to wait to consider rescinding the mandate until the numbers to start trending down again, which he said he expects to happen after Montana State University’s semester ends later this month
“It’s everybody’s right to be healthy and to feel safe. 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,” Walk said. “Nobody deserves to get sick.”
The board also voted to revise the phase two reopening guidelines on indoor group gatherings and bar and restaurant capacity to increase table capacity to eight people rather than six and to reduce the required distance between bar stools from 6 to 3 feet.
Similar to the face mask mandate, Kelley said the rise in cases complicates decisions on business reopening.
People have complained to the county about bars operating above the required capacity, and Kelley said they even received a video over the weekend showing close dancing at a crowded bar.
The amended rules means more people will be in establishments, Kelley said.
“A crowded bar filled with 20-somethings right now makes me nervous as health officer. I worry about the impact that’s having on our numbers overall,” Kelley said.
Skinner was the only board member to vote against the amended guidelines. He said he would like to see the county move toward “personal responsibility” rather than “restricting mandates.”
“I think now is the time to let personal decisions and personal responsibilities take over,” Skinner said. “I think we’ve been educated to this virus we know how to protect ourselves.”
The mask mandate expires on May 27 and the reopening guidelines expire on May 10. The board is planning to meet in early May to reconsider the mask mandate and the reopening guidelines.
The rescinded rules on quarantine and isolation and long-term care facilities will change little for the health department. Kelley said they will continue to do contact tracing and ask people to quarantine or isolate when needed, and will continue to ask long-term care facilities to follow guidelines to close visitation for 14 days after a positive case in the facility.
Kelley said the department will be consulting facilities on that guideline and may change course in the future.