Gallatin County health officials approved Tuesday a measure that allows bars, restaurants and casinos to stay open later and opens seating at countertops and poker tables. The move is meant to keep up with the state’s reopening plan.
The Gallatin City-County Health Board voted 8-0 to open poker rooms and allow people to sit at bars while maintaining 6 feet from other patrons. Those businesses can stay open until 12:30 a.m.
Distilleries and breweries can seat people at countertops under the same rules but are required to follow existing laws on closing times.
On June 3, Gov. Steve Bullock quietly announced loosening the restrictions on bar seating and operating hours. His rule went into effect Friday.
The health board’s vote on Tuesday continues phase two restrictions for businesses, including allowing them to operate at 75% capacity, encouraging good hygiene and cautioning those vulnerable to the virus to continue limiting contact with others.
The vote came before the county announced four new cases of COVID-19, bringing the area’s total to 168 with nine active cases. The four new cases included a woman in her 50s, man and a woman in their 70s and a boy between the ages of 10 and 19.
Under the amended rule, businesses can either keep patrons 6 feet apart while seated at a bar or use plexiglass barriers approved by the health department meant to prevent the spread of the virus. Those barriers must be at least 3 feet high and offer enough protection to prevent employee exposure to “droplets” from anyone seated within 6 feet of a serving area.
Bar seating is prohibited when customers can’t be 6 feet or more from ice machines, where food or beverages are prepared and where drinks are passed to servers. All patrons must have a place to sit and there is no mingling allowed at the bar or elsewhere.
If a group of six or fewer requests to be seated together at a bar, an employee can accommodate the group as long as they remain 6 feet from other people at the counter.
Bars may have an area where customers can place and receive orders away from other patrons, wells, taps and prep stations. Only one person could use the station at a time, and patrons of separate parties should maintain social distancing. People ordering from this area should grab their drink and return to their seats.
Bars should not reuse coasters and
prohibit shake-a-day, unless employees can disinfect coasters, dice and cups between patrons. Bars should not refill glasses.
Poker rooms are required to follow the same guidelines for bar seating. Those establishments should work with the health department on guidelines and best practices.
Health officer Matt Kelley said at the meeting that the revision wasn’t major but it was something the health board needed to consider to keep employees and customers safe.
“The idea is, we’re creating an area where bar tenders could work without having the public in their face at all times,” he said.
When the meeting opened to public comment, Mike Hope, owner of the Rocking R Bar, said the policy, while imperfect, is a step in the right direction.
Hope addressed events that happened over the weekend like the National Day of Action for Black Lives and a graduation ceremony, and said he’s hearing from businesses owners who think there is a “double standard.” He said he supported the rally and was proud to see the city make big strides for social justice issues but is hearing frustration from people about what’s allowed.
“People are getting to the point where they’re starting to throw their hands up and asking why we’re doing these policies,” he said.
Kelley said he understands there are contradictions that are frustrating and clarified that the health department spoke with schools and rally organizers to guide them on best practices for social distancing. However, he said, the city and the health department are not responsible for issuing permits for those events and have no control over them.
Kelley thanked Hope and other businesses owners for doing what they can to limit the spread of the virus and said the sacrifices they have made matter.