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The Gallatin City-County Board of Health adopted an emergency rule Wednesday that reinforces an order from the health department requiring people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts to stay home.

The board also voted to extend the closure of restaurants, bars, gyms and other public gathering places until April 24 to align the end date with the governor’s statewide order.

Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, gave the board a few benchmarks he’d like Gallatin County to meet before businesses and public gatherings begin to reopen. Those include a reduction in COVID-19 cases for 14 days straight, testing becoming consistently available for anyone who needs it and hospitals being able to operate at normal capacity.

Kelley said Gallatin County has seen a plateau in new cases over the last few days, but that there were also fewer tests run over Easter weekend. Gallatin County added a new case Wednesday morning and now counts 139 COVID-19 patients. The state reached 404 cases.

Kelley didn’t give a timeline for reopening businesses and returning to normal, but said it would need to happen in phases. He said the health department would talk with business owners about how best to move forward.

“We need to do this in a slow, considerate way,” Kelley said.

Kelley signed an order on April 7 directing people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate. It also asks that people who are awaiting COVID-19 test results and people who have come in close contact with positive cases stay home. The emergency rule adopted Wednesday contains the same language and reinforces the order.

Violating the order is a misdemeanor and carries a fine. The order and emergency rule expire in 90 days.

“This is not about criminalizing people who are sick. It’s about giving the health officer, the health department, the county attorney’s office and law enforcement a tool to deal with a rare circumstance...where someone will not comply with isolation or quarantine guidelines,” Kelley said.

Kelley said he was advised by other public health officials and the county attorney’s office to issue the order.

The emergency rule was widely supported among the nine board members. Joe Skinner, a county commissioner and board member, said he had initial concerns about the board’s authority to enforce the rule, but after reviewing state law cited in the order, he was assured the rule is within the board’s purview.

“This ends in 90 days. I have total faith in Matt Kelley and the sheriff’s department to apply this rule with discretion, and I know they will,” Skinner said.

The county is offering help to those in isolation or quarantine, like by dropping off groceries or prescriptions. Kelley said the health department will contact anyone who needs to abide by the emergency rule.

The board received 34 pages worth of public comment via email before Wednesday’s meeting and more people spoke during the meeting. A majority of the comments voiced opposition to the health department’s order for people to self-isolate when they or a close contact tests positive.

Some questioned if the order was necessary. Many questioned whether the order is constitutional, saying the health department should not be able to implement new laws. Others expressed concerns about how restrictions like the stay-at-home order and closure of public gathering places are negatively affecting the local economy.

Betsy Mancuso, a Manhattan town councilwoman, said during the meeting she’s concerned that whether or not state law allows for the order, it still encroaches on personal rights.

“I’m very alarmed about the violation of civil liberties because we are still under the Constitution of the United States,” Mancuso said.

State Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, spoke at the meeting and referenced a letter state GOP leaders sent Gov. Steve Bullock yesterday that called into question the legality of some of his restrictions put into place over the last month. White said the local health board’s rule doesn’t give a clear definition of close contact and regulates healthy people who aren’t a threat to others.

“There are some questions to the constitutionality of the governor’s order and there are some questions to the constitutionality of what you’re doing here today,” White said.

White said the board should focus on getting people back to work.

Erin Arnold, Gallatin County deputy attorney, said during the meeting that Montana code doesn’t just allow county health boards and health officers to implement public health laws and use measures to enforce them, but obligates them to do so to protect the public from communicable diseases. She said federal courts upheld similar emergency rules used in the U.S. during the Ebola outbreak.

Kelley said the order and emergency rule have not been adopted lightly. He said that while he understands it does restrict some people, it’s necessary to curb further spread of the virus.

“I want to be mindful of the fact that people should have the freedom and a reasonable expectation that when people are not being compliant...we will take action,” Kelley said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.