Downtown Masks

Diners wait in groups for a table outside of Jam on Saturday morning, Jan. 20, 2021, in downtown Bozeman.

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The Gallatin City-County Health Board voted Wednesday to extend the countywide mask mandate and decided it will revisit the restrictions on businesses when they expire on Feb. 4.

The mask mandate is now in place until April 20, but the board could reevaluate it at any time.

The rule requires people to wear face coverings in most public settings but makes several exceptions, including for children younger than 5 and those with certain medical conditions.

In making their decision, board members cited scientific studies that show face coverings reduce transmission of the virus. Members also referenced public comments from business owners who said masks keep their customers and employees safe and help them remain open.

Joe Skinner, who is also a Gallatin County commissioner, was the only board member to vote against extending the mask rule. He said he wanted to be a voice for residents who don’t agree with mandates. He also said it is difficult to know whether the board’s mask rule has led to a reduction in COVID-19 cases. He urged the board to mirror Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s statewide order.

Gianforte has upheld the mask mandate implemented under former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock but has said he hopes to eliminate it soon.

The health board first enacted the county mask mandate in July and then extended it for 90 days when it expired in October.

The board also resolved to meet Feb. 4 to discuss whether to extend or revise the rule requiring many businesses to operate at 50% capacity, to limit tables to six individuals and to close between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., except for delivery and carry-out services. The rule also restricts many group gatherings to 25 people.

Health Officer Matt Kelley said the goal of the rule is to limit human interaction and, in turn, lower transmission rates.

The 10 p.m. closing time has been contentious. One business owner said the restriction cut so deeply into his profits that he had to lay off employees.

However, some board members pointed to scientific studies that indicate frequenting bars and restaurants increases the risk of contracting COVID-19.

At the Feb. 4 meeting, the board will discuss whether to revise the rule to a midnight closing time, which board member Buck Taylor said is an effort to recognize the challenges businesses face while also working to limit the virus’ spread.

Board members chose to reassess the rule in two weeks because they want to understand the impacts of the return of Montana State University students, the scheduled reopening of Bozeman schools to additional days of in-person learning, the emergence of new variants of the virus and the county’s ongoing vaccination effort.

The board implemented the changes to group gathering sizes and business operations in November as cases, hospitalizations and deaths were surging and straining the county’s health system. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have since declined, but Kelley, the health officer, said they remain at concerning levels.

Gianforte rescinded similar statewide rules on business operations and group gatherings last week but said local health boards could enact their own stricter rules.

On Wednesday, the health board voted unanimously to extend until April 20 the local rule that permits visitors at long-term care and assisted-living facilities if they adhere to strict protocols, including having gone 14 days without a COVID-19 case. The 14-day metric is a reduction from the previous 28-day standard and was made to align the local rule with new federal benchmarks.

Last year, long-term care and assisted-living facilities were closed to visitors for months because the elderly are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and because congregate living environments are more susceptible to outbreaks.

Over the summer, the health board chose to permit visitors under certain conditions because the isolation was negatively impacting residents.

The board also voted unanimously to continue until April 20 the local rule mandating isolation or quarantine of those who have been exposed to or have contracted COVID-19 to minimize the virus’ spread.

Coronavirus cases in Gallatin County peaked in mid-November before declining until late December. They have since climbed again and stabilized with about 70-90 added daily.

The county had 588 active cases with 11 active hospitalizations on Wednesday. A total of 10,328 residents had recovered and 41 had died from the disease since the pandemic began.

There has been growing tension in Gallatin County and across Montana about the power local health boards have to enact rules like those discussed Wednesday.

The state Legislature is considering bills that would shift authority from health boards to elected city and county officials. Attorney General Austen Knudsen has ordered dismissal of a lawsuit against the Rocking R Bar for violating the local 10 p.m. closing time. A petition was posted to change.org last week demanding that Kelley, the health officer, resign. It has garnered about 800 signatures.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.