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Gallatin County health officials have filed a lawsuit against a Bozeman bar for violating the 10 p.m. closing time set by the health board to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Rocking R Bar is named as the defendant in the complaint filed in Gallatin County District Court late Wednesday afternoon.

The complaint asks a judge to issue a preliminary injunction ordering the bar to comply with health orders and rules set by the county health department and Gov. Steve Bullock. It also asks that the judge order the Gallatin County Sheriff, and any other county peace officer, to enforce the terms.

Brian Gallik, attorney for Rocking R Bar, said Wednesday afternoon that he hadn’t seen the complaint and couldn’t comment.

The Chronicle obtained copies of the lawsuit from Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert shortly after it was filed. Gallatin City-County Board of Health and Health Officer Matt Kelley are named as plaintiffs in the complaint, which also asks the judge to set a hearing in the matter.

Earlier this month, Gallatin County’s health board passed new restrictions meant to slow the spread of coronavirus. The rules restrict most gatherings to 25 people, reduced most businesses’ capacity to 50% and required bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m., except for carry-out and delivery services.

Bullock made the 10 p.m. closing time a statewide rule last Friday. He also announced more money for businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but said that money would be contingent on businesses following the health rules.

The court filing comes less than a week after the county sent warning letters to Rocking R Bar and JRs Lounge in Belgrade for staying open past the 10 p.m. on several instances. County Attorney Marty Lambert said JRs Lounge has come into compliance with the rules since the letter.

The Rocking R Bar did not. Police found that the bar remained open past 10 p.m. on Nov. 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 23 and 24, court documents say. A warning letter was issued to the bar on Nov. 19, an effort to get the bar in compliance before civil action was taken.

Police spoke with Rocking R Bar owner Mike Hope more than once about complying with the health orders and rules, court documents say. On Nov. 16, Hope told police that he was not going to obey the closing time and that it was his intention to stay open until 12:30 a.m.

Hope told police that people inside the bar were obeying all the other health orders about social distancing, staying at tables and not roaming around inside the business.

“The only rule we’re not following quite honestly is, is the closing time, but we’re following everything else,” Hope told police.

In an affidavit filed as part of the suit, Kelley said that indicators in Gallatin County show “uncontrolled and rapidly escalating spread of COVID-19,” especially for individuals in their late teens and early 20s, who have the highest rate of infections in the county. Kelley said that’s concerning because it drives outbreaks, especially when people aren’t showing symptoms of the disease.

He said that age group has been associated with numerous outbreaks in bars and restaurants, and later connected to infections in long-term care and assisted living facilities. He said bars present a high-risk for spreading the virus because people are in close contact with each other.

The Rocking R Bar on Tuesday, for example, advertised a “Beer Pong Tournament” on its Facebook page. The ad included a photo of four people posing side-by-side inside the bar.

As of Oct. 27, Rocking R Bar had received $71,542 in coronavirus relief doled out by the state, according to the Montana Department of Commerce’s website.

Under Bullock’s recent directive, businesses out of compliance with local and state health rules, like closing by 10 p.m., would not be qualified to receive pandemic-related assistance.

On Wednesday, Kelley held a news conference about the virus ahead of the holiday weekend. Despite increasing cases, deaths and hospitalizations, he said, there are a small number of businesses that aren’t complying.

Kelley also addressed the ad announcing a beer pong tournament.

“It’s just not appropriate. It’s unsafe. It’s concerning,” Kelley said.

At about 10:20 p.m. Wednesday night, the bar was open. People were still arriving.

A television screen facing the street showed song lyrics. Patrons were singing karaoke.

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

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