Gallatin County Sues Rocking R Bar

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert questions Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley in District Court Judge Rienne McElyea's courtroom on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at the Law and Justice Center. Gallatin County brought a lawsuit against the Rocking R Bar for violating the 10 p.m. closing time set by the health board.

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Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley stood by the county’s health rules meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus on Friday, a day after Montana’s attorney general ordered the county attorney to dismiss a suit against Rocking R Bar for violating one of the rules.

At a virtual meeting, Kelley said his intention is to stay focused on slowing the spread of the virus and distributing vaccines quickly for the disease that “continues to cause hospitalizations and deaths” here and throughout the state.

“I work for the board of health and I work for the people of Gallatin County, not the attorney general,” Kelley said.

On Thursday, Montana’s attorney general Austin Knudsen ordered Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert to dismiss a civil case against Rocking R Bar.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health and Kelley sued the bar for violating a 10 p.m. closing time ordered by the county health board to slow the spread of COVID-19. A Gallatin County judge in December granted the county a preliminary injunction, ordering the bar to comply with the health rules until March.

The bar has and is required to continue complying with the court order, as litigation is pending.

Knudsen said in a news release that the 10 p.m. closing time “defies commonsense” and is “devastating to Montana workers and small businesses.” He said that his action is a message to reopen the state’s economy safely and “not allow overzealous local governments to hold Montana businesses and their employees hostage.”

Lambert said he wouldn’t comply with the order because the state isn’t involved in the case, and that the law Knudsen cited requires parties involved in the case to agree to dismissal.

Kelley told Lambert he didn’t want to toss the case out. The health board is expected to vote on whether to continue the suit at a meeting on Wednesday at 7 a.m.

Lambert said a directive by Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier this week “recognized that local health authorities may enact rules or orders more restrictive than the Governor’s.” That directive went into effect on Friday.

The governor lifted a statewide-ordered 10 p.m. closing time for bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries and casinos, allowing those businesses to return to normal closing times. Those businesses can also return to normal capacity.

On Friday, Kelley said he respects and intends to work with Gianforte’s administration to prevent deaths and hospitalizations. He said he was encouraged that Gianforte acknowledged that local boards of health play an important role in dealing with the pandemic.

“In Montana, state law gives local boards of health, not just the option, but the duty to take steps to protect public health,” Kelley said. “Just one part of that in Gallatin County has been through a number of emergency rules.”

The county’s health rules remain in effect, with some set to expire on Wednesday. The board of health is scheduled to meet then to consider whether to extend rules on business operations, the county’s mask mandate, and isolation and quarantine procedures at long-term care facilities.

Kelley said the board will look at the best scientific and epidemiological information available to make decisions about whether to extend or modify those rules.

“Again, the governor made some decisions at the state level, it’s time for the board to make some decisions at the local level,” he said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.