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The end of COVID-19 related regulations in Gallatin County for businesses and public gatherings and face masks is expected to approach in the coming weeks.

Due to an expected change in state law, the Gallatin City-County Board of Health did not vote during a meeting Wednesday on measures related to the face mask rule or reopening guidelines that guided operations at businesses.

The face mask mandate is set to expire on May 27, and the phase two reopening guidelines for business operations and public gatherings are scheduled to expire on May 10.

The county interprets new legislation expected to receive Gov. Greg Gianforte’s signature as prohibiting the board or other local government bodies from “adopting or extending local emergency rules designed to slow transmission,” County Health Officer Matt Kelley said.

Gianforte signing the bill — House Bill 257 — would not void the two rules, Kelley said in an email, “but would make it difficult to enforce or extend” them.

The board had been scheduled to vote Wednesday on two resolutions recommending Gallatin County and Bozeman commissions adopt measures to extending the face mask mandate and COVID-19 mitigation requirements and recommendations for business.

House Bill 121, signed by Gianforte in April, requires elected officials to approve rules put in place by local health boards or officers.

But the county didn’t recommend the board vote on the resolutions “to avoid the confusion of passing resolutions that we really are pretty confident are not going to be lawful as soon as the governor signs HB 257 into law,” Kelley said.

There is still a lot of uncertainty around the reach and potential impact of the bill, said Erin Arnold, a deputy county attorney for Gallatin County.

HB 257 specifically “prohibits local governments from adopting any kind of rule or regulation that would compel a private business to deny access or goods or services to a customer,” Arnold said, and prohibits the same for rules denying a customer access to a private business’ goods or services.

“Based on HB 257, the hands of the board and local governments are now very much tied,” Arnold said.

Gianforte vetoing the bill is considered unlikely since he previously returned it to the Legislature with amendments, indicating he would sign it should the amendments be adopted.

The Legislature adopted the amendments in late April and transmitted the bill to Gianforte on Tuesday.

Kelley said the bill puts “meaningful control for public health rules” into the hands of the governor and the Legislature, but that its impact on the health department’s authority to enforce other local health rules unrelated to COVID-19, is still unclear.

“Every health department in the state is struggling to understand what’s happening right now,” Kelley said.

Arnold said the county’s interpretation is that the bill preserves its ability to enforce any health rules coming from the state level.

Kelley raised concerns that being stripped of enforcement powers for COVID-19 related rules will worsen compliance among businesses in the area.

Kelley shared photos and videos taken on a recent weekend night of crowds of unmasked people in and outside of several downtown bars, including El Camino, Bar IX and the Rocking R Bar.

“We’re a community where disease transmission is happening in that younger age group and it’s less of a mystery to me why that is happening after witnessing what’s happening in some, not all, of the bars downtown,” Kelley said.

Casey Durham, the owner of El Camino, said they try their best to follow the guidelines set out by the county’s rule.

“It’s extremely hard to monitor late night energy but we do it as best as we can,” Durham said.

Mike Hope, who owns the Rocking R, said Wednesday they are following the guidance coming from the state level, though he declined to get into specifics beyond saying that they check the temperature of staff members before their shift, tell sick employees to stay home, and have sanitation at the entrances.

“I think that most establishments in town are not following the social distancing rules,” Hope said.

Bar IX could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Kelley said he expects health order compliance issues at bars to worsen with HB 257.

“To the extent that it emboldens business owners to ignore us, that’s going to be a problem,” Kelley said.

During the meeting Wednesday, the health board also voted to recommend the county and Bozeman commissions adopt the local health code, which is a requirement under HB 121, and discussed the process to replace Kelley, who announced in March he would be resigning in June.

The board also voted to appoint health department employee Lori Christenson to become interim health officer should Kelley’s position not be filled before he leaves.

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.