Masks

Waring Trible eats lunch with his wife, Sue, and his daughter, Ella, in front of the downtown Co-Op on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. The Gallatin County Health Board voted to continue the existing reopening rules on Thursday, including requiring businesses to operate at 75% capacity.

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With the number of active coronavirus cases in Gallatin County declining, the local health board decided Thursday to allow limited visitation at long-term care facilities.

Local nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities and senior and assisted living facilities can now welcome visitors if they comply with requirements that include conducting surveillance testing, monitoring visitors for COVID-19 symptoms and having no COVID-19 cases for at least 28 days.

The new rule aligns Gallatin County’s regulations with statewide rules.

In March, Gov. Steve Bullock suspended all non-essential visits to long-term care facilities in the state. Then, in June, Bullock began allowing visits to those facilities, but Gallatin County opted to continue the prohibitions because long-term care facilities had been the site of outbreaks in Montana and across the  country.

“This is a very, very difficult situation. On one hand, … when this virus gets into these long-term care facilities it can be really deadly,” Kelley said. … “On the other hand, we know that (given) the quality of life and the health of residents, prolonged isolation also has risks.”

In recent weeks, Kelley said the health department has been working with the local long-term care facilities to determine how to allow visitation safely and will continue to communicate with the facilities to ensure compliance with the new visitation requirements.

About 50 people submitted public comments in advance of Thursday’s meeting requesting that the county allow visits to long-term care facilities. Many said the isolation their relatives were experiencing was impacting their mental health.

“We are so concerned with physical health, and rightly so!” wrote Deidre Klompien. “However, the mental and emotional toll in this isolation has had on elderly residents is as detrimental to their health as a physical illness may be.”

Two people said the visitation restrictions should continue because the upcoming return to school could cause COVID-19 cases to rise.

The health board also decided Thursday to continue until Nov. 25 the existing rule on reopening, which includes limitations on gatherings of more than 50 people and allows most businesses to operate at 75% capacity.

Board member Joe Skinner, who is also a Gallatin County commissioner, was the only member to vote against extending the rule on reopening. He acknowledged that the county couldn’t enact rules that were less restrictive than the statewide rules but said the board could follow state regulations without creating local restrictions.

“There’s a growing cynicism (about whether) this rises to the level of an emergency based on other diseases and risks we have in a free society, and looking at mortality rates and morbidity rates nationwide and especially in Gallatin County, there’s really a question if this is an emergency,” Skinner said.

A handful of people submitted public comments asking the board not to extend the local rule. They said the board didn’t have the power to create the rule and the level of transmission in Gallatin County didn’t warrant it.

“It is time to stop overstepping the authority you do not have,” Cara Tate wrote to the board. “Listen to the people who are standing up more and more and do what is right instead of the emotional abuse you are pushing on the residents of this county.”

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County has declined in recent weeks. The seven-day rolling average of new cases was seven on Wednesday, down from a high of 28 in late July.

On Thursday, the health department announced 17 new cases, the highest daily total in about two weeks.

“This can change really quickly as we saw in early July,” Kelley said. “We were about where we are now going into July and we very quickly climbed into a critical level.”

With the return of Montana State University students in recent weeks and the start of school in local districts in the coming weeks, Kelley said cases could climb again.

“This is tenuous,” he said.

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