Closed Bars/Restaurants

A sign in the window of the Bozeman Eagles Club announces the bar’s closure March 18.

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It’s been more than a week since Gallatin County has added a new case of the coronavirus, and health officials voted Friday to lift closures on some businesses starting next week, a move that aligns the county with the state’s plan for a gradual reopening.

Gallatin County health officer Matt Kelley said the success in bending the curve is due to the work and sacrifice of residents, business owners and health care workers. The last new case in the county was added on April 22.

“Together we have taken actions to create the distance that defeats this virus,” he said.

However, he cautioned that the virus remained dangerous and widespread. Kelley said people should continue limiting the number of people they come into contact with and take precautions when possible.

Kelley provided the update at a Friday afternoon news conference streamed live on social media. There he touched on things he had said during a Gallatin County Health Board meeting earlier in the day to lift closures on bars, restaurants and casinos.

The board voted 8-1 to allow those businesses to reopen on Monday and provided guidance for operating safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Those rules are similar to state standards like limiting capacity and closing by 11:30 p.m.

The order also allows “organized youth activities” like gymnastics, dance, softball, baseball and vocation Bible school to start if physical distancing guidelines can be implemented.

Under the rule, private and public campgrounds are allowed to open if they can follow the same social distancing guidelines.

The rule directs employers to establish policies for social distancing, checking peoples’ temperatures, screening for symptoms and using disinfectant on high-traffic areas. Employers are asked to work with public health officials to test, isolate, quarantine and pursue contact tracing to slow the spread of the virus.

If a person or business owner is found guilty of noncompliance, the person could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $500.

Places like gyms and spas, hot springs and other places of assembly, such as theaters, bowling alleys and music halls, remain closed. Senior living facilities must continue prohibiting visitors.

The rule includes guidance on what it would take to allow other businesses to open, including the ability to test everyone with coronavirus symptoms and treat cases. It also required that health care systems have capacity to monitor those cases and have enough protective equipment.

The health board could reinstate restrictions if it’s unable to do contact tracing, if there is an increase in people infected with COVID-19 and if there aren’t enough tests for people with symptoms of the illness. The board could also renege on opening if customers and business owners are out of compliance with its recommendations.

Kelley said at the meeting that vulnerable people should continue to stay home and limit contact with others.

“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and we still have to continue to work and think that way,” Kelley said.

The health department expects to see new cases as businesses reopen, but Kelley said it’s important not to jump to conclusions based on small data samples. Rather, he said, it would monitor the number of new cases over two to three weeks and base decisions on that.

“What I’m really concerned about is a regular increase in those cases,” he said.

Despite the health board encouraging people to practice social distancing, stream the meeting online and submit comments via email, one person attended the meeting in opposition of keeping businesses closed.

Betsy Mancuso, a town councilwoman in Manhattan, told the health board it overstepped its constitutional bounds and urged them to lift the closure restrictions.

She said all models for the virus have been wrong and the impact has been far less than anticipated.

“(There are) zero hospitalizations right now and only one death. It is time to open up the valley and end this infringement on our economic and civil liberties,” Mancuso said.

Becky Franks, board chair, said this rule protects the county from “rogue businesses” that ignore the health department’s recommendations. She said businesses are working to do the right thing and open safely for their staff and residents.

“I want to make sure that we protect our progress and continue to move forward in a responsible way like 99% of our businesses are doing,” Franks said.

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