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Gov. Greg Gianforte has reversed some public health restrictions that were implemented by former Gov. Steve Bullock in mid-November as coronavirus cases were surging statewide.

Gianforte, a Republican, announced Wednesday there would no longer be capacity limits on bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries and casinos, which previously had to operate at 50% capacity and limit tables to six people.

Those businesses may also return to their regular closing times rather than having to shut down at 10 p.m.

“Businesses should make reasonable efforts to develop and implement appropriate policies based on industry best practices during this emergency,” according to the new directive. “Where no such industry practices exist, such policies should be developed and implemented in accordance with federal, state, and local regulations and guidance.”

Gianforte also eliminated size restrictions on group gatherings, which Bullock, a Democrat, had set at 25 people. Groups of any size can now meet, but Gianforte said they must follow social distancing guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The fact is we remain in the middle of a public health crisis and an economic crisis and we will continue to make common sense steps to more effectively confront both,” he said.

The new restrictions take effect at 5 a.m. Friday.

The new rules are part of a larger overhaul of the public health rules developed by Bullock.

Gianforte said he has consolidated 25 pages of directives into three pages. He also plans to continue to use the recommendations from his coronavirus task force to revise the state’s pandemic response.

“The whole concept here is we’re going to move to personal responsibility and away from specific mandates because we trust Montanans with their health and the health of their loved ones,” he said.

Gallatin County’s local emergency rules on business operations, which largely align with the previous Bullock directive, remain in place.

The Gallatin City-County Health Board is set to review those rules in February.

“We expect businesses and individuals to continue to comply with these (local) rules,” Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said in an emailed statement. “This disease remains dangerous and the Board will continue to use the best scientific evidence and epidemiological data available to take actions to reduce spread of this dangerous disease.”

In loosening restrictions, Gianforte said he is encouraged by the ongoing vaccination efforts as well as a recent decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The state is set to begin vaccinating adults over 70 and those between 16 and 69 who have specific underlying health conditions — called phase 1B — on Monday.

“We are focusing on our efforts on our neighbors, friends and family who are most at risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus,” Gianforte said. “Focusing on the most vulnerable will save lives.”

Last week, Gianforte altered phase 1B, changing it from specific essential workers to older and more vulnerable Montanans. Essential workers are now in the third priority group, 1C.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration recommended states immediately expand access to vaccines to everyone over 65. Gen. Matt Quinn, who leads the governor’s coronavirus response, said Montanans would be focusing vaccinations on those over 70 — not 65 — because those over 70 have accounted for 75% of the state’s deaths.

Frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities were the first priority group — known as phase 1A. They began receiving the vaccine in December. This group will continue to have access to the vaccine even as more people become eligible.

As of Tuesday, Gianforte said 42,000 Montanans had gotten their first dose, with about half of those immunizations occurring in the last week. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that Montana had received 44,063 first doses. The state is expecting to receive thousands more doses in the coming weeks.

Statewide, coronavirus cases have climbed in recent days after steadily declining from late November through late December.

By Wednesday, there were 4,908 active cases with 199 active hospitalizations. A total of 81,676 residents have recovered from the disease and 1,069 have died.

Gallatin County has seen a similar pattern.

Cases peaked in mid-November and steadily declined until late December when they began picking up again.

On Wednesday, the seven-day rolling average of new cases was 82. The county had 578 active cases with nine active hospitalizations. Since the pandemic began, 9,849 residents have recovered from the disease.

The county has had 41 deaths, two of which were announced Wednesday. They were two women over 80 who died in long-term care facilities in late December.

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