Support Local Journalism


Gallatin County health officials voted Thursday to move ahead with Montana’s plan to ease restrictions and open all businesses starting Monday while cautioning that the pandemic isn’t over.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health voted 8-1 to advance reopening at a meeting that drew protesters and angry public comment from people who don’t think the virus is as bad as officials predicted. The county health officer also announced that a person tested positive on Wednesday for COVID-19, Gallatin County’s first new case in almost three weeks.

The vote will allow for gatherings of up to 50 people and increases the capacity businesses can operate at from 50% to 75%. It also suggests that businesses that provide necessary services — like pharmacies and grocery stores — and where it’s hard to maintain social distancing should consider requiring face coverings for employees and customers.

All businesses will be allowed to open as long as they follow the county’s rule and adhere to sanitation guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials limited the meeting room to 10 people, causing overflow into the third floor of the county courthouse. Public commenters both in person and over the phone urged the board to fully reopen the economy. Eight people took to the sidewalk in front of the courthouse to protest the restrictions despite the county approving easing guidelines and moving forward with reopening.

On May 19, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the state would move into phase two of its reopening plan at the beginning of June. Bullock’s directive lifts a 14-day mandatory self-quarantine for out-of-state visitors and allows county governments to decide whether groups larger than 50 can gather in a way that prevents the spread of COVID-19.

Thursday’s vote aligned the county with the state’s directive and restricted events that are “unstructured and social” like fairs, festivals, wedding receptions and live music concerts to 50 guests. Officials for Bozeman’s Art Walks, Music on Main, and The Big Sky Country State Fair announced early this week those events are canceled.

Events where more than 50 people attend should be held only if attendees’ social interactions could be managed through physical layout and seating arrangements.

Several people opposed the emergency rule because of a portion that states businesses “should consider mandatory use of face coverings for the staff and the public.” Though health officials said the order doesn’t require people to wear masks, and that it would be at the discretion of businesses, opponents said it should be their decision whether they want to wear a mask.

On the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, eight people held signs that read “America Come Out,” “Lying Government,” “Due Process of Law” and “Defy Martial Law.” Some cars passing by honked their horns.

Kristen, who refused to give her last name, spoke on a megaphone urging people “think for yourselves,” warned not to listen to “fake news” and go straight to “the source” for information rather than listening to “the media.”

In the hallway outside the meeting room, a small group of people, some holding signs, waited to provide public comment. When a person inside was done speaking, a Gallatin County Sheriff’s deputy opened the door for someone to take the speaker’s place.

Debra Brown, a candidate for Senate District 35, said people from outside the county are not coming here to shop because they think it’s unsafe. She also took issue with conflicting statements on enforcement of the rule and confusing directions about wearing masks in public.

Brown said she’s traveled through several states and has seen many people not wearing masks. She said people shouldn’t be forced to do something they feel is unnecessary.

“It should not be dictated that everyone should wear a mask,” Brown said.

Betsy Mancuso, a Manhattan town councilwoman, phoned into the meeting and said that people who sit on the health board aren’t elected officials and are “not accountable to the people.” She was against the rule because she said it makes “normal human behavior” a crime and that — even though it’s classified as one — “this is not a pandemic.”

“We just want to get back to work,” Mancuso said. “We do not want to have these ridiculous restrictions on us.”

Health officer Matt Kelley talked about the new case in Gallatin County, which brings the county’s total to 150. Statewide, there were 486 cases.

Kelley said these guidelines give the board a standard to tell an organizer whether people at a wedding, concert or other event could maintain social distancing and keep people safe.

He also said the decision was tough, and that it was hard to draw lines.

“It’s the biology, physics and chemistry of the bug that we’re trying to deal with. We’re not trying to pick on anybody,” Kelley said.

He said the restrictions are similar to those in phase one and said that people would not be required to wear face masks after the rule was passed. He said he’s unaware of anyone in the county being ticketed for it since it’s implementation in March.

“Should is permissive language,” Kelley said. “You’re allowed to not pay attention to it, and we don’t have a lot of authority to enforce it.”

Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner voted against the rule and said he didn’t like the enforcement part of it. However, he said, he agrees the county’s rule couldn’t be less restrictive than Bullock’s order.

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Freddy Monares can be reached at or at 406-582-2630.