Though strengthening enforcement authority was one of the reasons Gallatin County pursued the enactment of local health rules related to COVID-19 last week, area law enforcement officials say they so far haven’t had to deal with any major problems related to the new mandates.
Belgrade Chief of Police E.J. Clark said his officers are committed to educating people about a 90-day county rule adopted Friday, which requires people to wear face coverings in public places. The mandate differs only slightly from a face-covering directive issued by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on July 15, with which citizens also have been complying, Clark said.
Even before the government mask requirements were issued, Belgrade officers responded occasionally to complaints from people unwilling to wear face coverings in businesses whose owners required them. Clark said not everyone understands that owners of private businesses have the right to set rules for their own establishments. Patrons who refuse to leave if they don’t wish to comply can be charged with disorderly conduct or trespassing, he said, but authorities are hopeful that such problems can be prevented through education rather than enforcement.
“Tempers are going to flare and people are passionate about it,” Clark said. “Our goal is to educate people. We don’t want to cite people unless we absolutely have to.”
Clark said officers from Belgrade, Bozeman and the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office all intend to enforce the local health rules the same way. Sheriff Brian Gootkin said some misinterpreted comments he made at an aborted health board meeting earlier this month to mean his office will not enforce local health rules.
“What I told people is we have no interest in issuing citations or arresting people, but we will respond,” he said Tuesday. “I think I’ve been pretty crystal clear from Day 1.”
According to Montana law, there are two possible penalties for violations of local health rules – a fine up to $200, or a fine up to $500 and imprisonment of up to 90 days. Deputy County Attorney Erin Arnold said it would be up to a judge to determine which penalty applies to a given case. Such penalties are not included in the state directive.
The Gallatin County Board of Health was scheduled to hear public testimony on a similar set of rules at a public meeting on July 14, but it was postponed after many in the crowd of more than 100 refused to comply with physical distancing procedures. The governor issued his directive the next day.
Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley told the Belgrade News the county decided to try again to pass its own health rule – even after the governor’s directive went into effect – on the advice of the county attorney’s office.
“Because we’re a decentralized health system, significant authority rests with the board of health,” Kelley said. “My understanding is (this) makes it more enforceable in civil court.”
Arnold confirmed that while the governor’s directive can be enforced by the county attorney’s office, a local rule also can be enforced by local law enforcement officials and the board of the health.
Kelley said that in addition to adding teeth to the mask requirement, the county wanted to tack on some provisions that weren’t included in the state order, such as requiring face coverings to be worn in middle and high schools. Belgrade and Bozeman schools already planned to require face coverings in schools if in-person instruction resumes this fall.
Unlike the state directive, the county rule requires masks to be worn on outdoor construction sites where it isn’t possible for workers to maintain 6 feet of distance from one another, and in other outdoor areas where people are clustered together.
The county’s original proposal would have exempted children under age 12 from the mask requirement, but the state order requires face coverings for children over age 4. By law, the county could not pass any requirements less restrictive than those in the state directive.
Though enforcement authority was one reason for passing a local rule, Kelley said Tuesday, “I want to stress that throughout this pandemic, our focus has been on education and helping businesses come into compliance.
“It’s important to understand that in public health, we start with education, our second try is education, and our third try is education,” he said.
He added that the health department’s focus now has turned to supporting schools.
“I think everybody thinks it would be good to get kids back in school. With having face coverings used in schools – if it can disrupt transmission even a little bit – we have a better chance of success,” he said.
Even with the new face-covering mandate, Kelley says he is concerned about the possibility of significant COVID-19 transmission occurring in Gallatin County in the coming weeks and months. The number of newly diagnosed cases in Montana and the county is climbing since the state entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan in early June, but numbers are still low compared to other places in the country. Kelley cautions that local decisions need to be made with an eye on what is happening elsewhere, such as in more highly populated areas of the southern and western U.S.
“Sometimes you have to look past the end of your nose to see something that’s going to hit you in the face,” he said.
At Friday’s meeting, Kelley said he was concerned that more than 20 newly diagnosed cases of COVID-19 were being confirmed in Gallatin County every day; however, since then, fewer than 20 new cases have been identified per day, though Kelley said it’s too soon to tell whether that portends a positive trend. He said he watches the 7-day rolling average of new cases, as he believes it is a more accurate indicator of trends. As of Tuesday this week, that number was 21.6.
In addition to setting requirements for the use of face coverings in the county, the board on Friday extended a local rule requiring quarantine for symptomatic individuals with a test pending or those identified as a close contact of someone with a known case of COVID-19. The rule also orders the isolation of individuals who test positive for the virus.
Whitney Bermes, county communications coordinator, said more than 4,500 public comments were submitted prior to the meeting. Most of those addressed the face covering proposal, and health board members said more comments were received in favor of the mandate than against it. However, most of the public testimony given during Friday’s hearing was in opposition to the mask mandate.
The face covering rule was approved on a 7-2 vote, with board members Joe Skinner and Justin Kamerman voting against it.