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The Gallatin City-County Board of Health was set to vote on Tuesday on whether to require masks in public but postponed the meeting after more than 100 people showed up and refused to listen from another room, in violation of statewide restrictions on large gatherings.

The meeting is now set for 7 a.m. Friday.

“The board really wanted to hear from the public today and tried every way they could to do that,” said health officer Matt Kelley after the meeting. “…It’s sad that we couldn’t do that because some people are more interested in hostility. … It makes me sad when we can’t listen to each other.”

The proposed rule would require mask-wearing in settings like retail stores, bars, restaurants, health care facilities and schools. People with certain medical conditions and children younger than 12 would be exempt from the mask requirement.

Cases of the coronavirus have risen in recent weeks in Gallatin County. On Tuesday, the county announced 30 new cases, tying with July 8 for the highest daily total. As of Tuesday, the county had 137 active cases with four hospitalizations.

Statewide, there were 109 new cases on Tuesday for a total of 1,084 active cases with 29 hospitalizations. Gov. Steve Bullock also announced two deaths, both in Yellowstone County, bringing the total number of deaths in Montana to 34.

Dozens of people filed into The Commons at Baxter and Love on Tuesday morning to speak about the proposed mask mandate. Masks and hand sanitizer were provided at the entrance to the auditorium where the county had placed chairs intended to keep attendees 6 feet apart.

No one limited the number of people allowed in the auditorium, so some crowded into the back of the room.

Sheriff Brian Gootkin announced that those at the back of the room needed to wait outside, where the meeting was being broadcast, for their turn to provide public comment. He cited a statewide rule that limits gatherings to 50 people if they aren’t socially distanced.

Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner, who sits on the health board, was the only board member who addressed the public. He said board members wanted to hold the meeting and listen to everyone but had to do so in compliance with the statewide rule.

Shouts from the crowd drowned out Gootkin and Skinner.

At one point, the crowd chanted, “my body, my choice.” One person said, “Public meetings are for the public.” Another yelled, “It’s a big game. It’s rigged.”

A third said, “The Constitution says we have the right to assemble. It doesn’t say we have the right to assemble 6 feet apart.”

A fourth called board members fascists.

A man, who was one of the few attendees wearing a mask, approached board members yelling but was quickly stopped by a sheriff’s deputy who escorted him away. As he left, he called, “We want to know who to vote out.”

The board then decided to postpone the meeting until 1:30 p.m. A few hours later, the board moved the meeting to Friday to ensure it complies with the state’s public notice requirements, according to an email from county spokesperson Whitney Bermes.

After the meeting, Gootkin told attendees that he would answer questions they had about the sheriff’s office.

He said if the health board were to approve a mask mandate, the sheriff’s office wouldn’t issue criminal citations to violators.

“It’s no different than day one of this incident, of this situation,” he said. “If we get a complaint, we go and visit with the business owner, we visit with the person that’s there, we visit with the person that’s making the complaint. Not one citation. Not one arrest. It’s called the Montana way.”

However, the proposed rule says that those who do not wear a mask could be charged with a misdemeanor.

“We will be working with law enforcement to enforce the rule if the board decides to enact it,” Kelley said. “The rule allows for criminal penalties, and we’ll have to work with Brian (Gootkin) on that. But, if this passes, we’ll focus on educating the community and helping businesses get PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Over 1,000 people submitted comments to the health board about the proposed rule before Tuesday’s meeting.

Those who asked for a mask mandate cited scientific studies and comments from health experts who have said widespread mask-wearing can slow the spread of the virus and could prevent the county or the state from needing to implement stricter restrictions like a stay-at-home order.

As COVID-19 cases have climbed in Gallatin County, some Bozeman residents have urged people to wear masks.

An online petition asking for masks to be required has gathered about 3,700 signatures. Last week, several downtown businesses began requiring servers and other employees who interact with the public to wear masks.

Bozeman city commissioners also sent a letter to health board members last week to encourage them to enact a mask mandate and social distancing requirements.

Those who submitted comments to the health board in opposition to a mask requirement said a mandate could harm the economy and would impinge on their freedom.

Some said the scientific evidence on the efficacy of masks isn’t conclusive and that they may be harmful because they can impede breathing, might be unclean or could cause people to touch their faces more often. Several said the number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are low, indicating the virus isn’t any more of a concern than other public health issues like the flu.

A petition is also circulating online asking for the county not to require masks. It has garnered about 1,700 signatures.

Other Montana counties, including Big Horn, Missoula and Flathead, have recently begun requiring masks in public.

Bullock has said he supports the local rules but doesn’t want to implement a statewide mask mandate.

The county health board will accept public comment prior to Friday’s meeting via email or through a form on the Gallatin City-County Health Department website. Information on how to view or participate in the meeting, which will be virtual, is also on the website.

When the health board reconvenes on Friday, it will also decide whether to extend the county’s requirement that symptomatic people awaiting test results and those who have been identified by the health department as a close contact of someone who has tested positive must self-quarantine. The rule also says those who have tested positive must stay in isolation until they are deemed no longer contagious.

The rule was set to expire on Tuesday. The extension would keep it in place until Oct. 12.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at or at 582-2648.