Downtown Shoppers

Three shoppers gather to look at a phone while strolling Main Street in May in downtown Bozeman.

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Three dozen bars and restaurants in downtown Bozeman and around the city are voluntarily having their servers and employees who meet the public wear face masks to help limit spread of COVID-19.

“Our industry is really trying to do what’s right for the public,” said Mike Hope, owner of downtown’s Rocking R Bar, who led the effort to get businesses with alcohol licenses to sign on to the agreement.

“We want the community of Bozeman to be a safe place so that our businesses can stay open.”

Restaurants and bars were ordered closed by the governor in March as the state tried to halt a spike in coronavirus cases, and they stayed closed for weeks.

“I personally don’t like mandates from the government,” Hope added. “This is a chance to show we can work together for the betterment of the community.”

The list of participating bars and restaurants released Tuesday includes 27 downtown and another 10 elsewhere in the city, from Bozeman Spirits Distillery to MacKenzie River Pizza to Sidewinders.

“Hopefully this can set an example for the rest of the state,” Hope said.

Patrons are not required to wear face masks, he said. “That’s up to them.”

Some owners started talking about the idea last week, Hope said.

Over four or five days, they made a lot of phone calls to other businesses and conferred with their staffs. They agreed last Thursday to start having front-of-house staffs wear face masks on the Tuesday after the July Fourth holiday.

“We don’t really want to wear masks, but we feel it’s important to get out ahead so there’s not another closure,” said Joe Romano, owner of Urban Kitchen and Nina’s Tacos and Tequila. When restaurants were ordered closed, he said, that was “devastating to most businesses.”

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Montana dropped dramatically in April and May after the governor closed schools and non-essential businesses in March. But in June and July, Montana’s numbers have soared to new highs as bars, restaurants and other businesses have been allowed to reopen with restrictions.

Jim and Mary Pat Harris, owners of Bozeman Spirits Distillery and the Union Hall Brewery, pointed to that trend as part of their decision.

“With ample social distancing between inside and patio seating, sanitizing tables and chairs, we felt it was best for our servers to wear face masks daily,” the Harrises wrote.

As of Tuesday, the state reported 80 new cases, bringing the state’s total this year to 1,327 confirmed cases, including 588 active cases and 22 hospitalized. Some 716 people have recovered, but 23 Montanans have died.

Gallatin County, long No. 1 with the worst outbreak in Montana, is now vying for that distinction with Yellowstone County, which had 325 cases to Gallatin’s 308, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services report Tuesday. However, Gallatin County’s own updated report Tuesday shows 342 cases.

The rising trend prompted more than 1,150 Gallatin County residents to sign an online petition asking local officials to require face masks in public.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department recommends face masks where social distancing — staying 6 feet apart — isn’t possible, and it asks businesses to consider requiring masks in places where people have to go, like grocery stores, and doing it “in a friendly way.”

The list of participating businesses downtown includes: Pour House, 317 Pub, Room 1, Bar IX, Open Range Steak House, American Legion, Rocking R Bar, El Camino, Crystal Bar, Copper Whiskey Bar & Restaurant, Main Street Overeasy, Jam!, Cannery Lounge, Burger Bob’s, Bacchus Pub, Bozeman Spirits Distillery, Union Hall Brewery, Backcountry Burger Bar, MacKenzie River Pizza, Urban Kitchen, Salted Carmel, Nina’s, 14 North, Shine Beer Sanctuary, Montana Ale Works, Dave’s Sushi and Revelry.

Beyond downtown, the list of participants includes Sidewinders, Tanglewood, Bay Bar & Grill, Cat’s Paw, Molly Brown, Club Tavern & Grill, Fiesta Mexicana, Wild Rye Distillery, Scoop Bar and Pizza Campania.

Hope said he has heard that other businesses on North Seventh and North 19th avenues are also using face masks.

Josh Gibson, owner of Blackbird restaurant, and David Breck, owner of Bridger Brewing, said their establishments also have their wait staffs wearing masks.

This story was changed July 8 to include businesses not on the original list released by Mike Hope.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.