Support Local Journalism


Subscribe


Rocking R Bar must comply with Gallatin County health orders and close by 10 p.m., a restriction meant to slow the spread of the virus, a judge ruled on Wednesday.

Gallatin County District Court Judge Rienne McElyea granted the county’s request for a preliminary injunction against the bar, ordering it to comply with the health rule until March.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health and health officer Matt Kelley sued Rocking R Bar after it remained open past 10 p.m. on several occasions, despite a warning that it was in violation of the health rules. Rocking R Bar argued that the closing time was arbitrary and pushes people out to private residences, where health officials aren’t enforcing the rules.

County Attorney Marty Lambert argued that younger people who frequent bars are likely contributing to an uptick of disease transmission in the county. He said the 10 p.m. closing time was necessary to try to slow the spread of the virus.

Brian Gallik, attorney for Rocking R Bar, argued that the closing time was arbitrary and unlawful to enforce. He said that the closing time would also cause the bar’s revenue to further decline in a year that has already been tough for most business owners.

Wednesday’s ruling comes as health officials in the state and across the country face scrutiny over virus-related regulations. Some people say the restrictions violate their rights. Health officials say that the rules are necessary to stem the spread of the virus.

The restrictions have drawn protests in Gallatin County, with some former Libertarian political candidates spending days protesting outside Kelley’s house.

There have also been rallies in support of Kelley, and Gallik said on Tuesday that he doesn’t support the protests outside of Kelley’s home.

On Tuesday, the court heard testimony from Kelley and Montana’s state medical officer Greg Holzman. Montana State professors Dr. Raina Plowright and Dr. Seth Walk, who is also a health board member, also testified on behalf of the county.

Witness testimony relied on studies that found people who go to bars and restaurants are more likely to contract and spread the virus within a city. They also talked about how the disease is new, and that health officials have been developing policies as they learned more about it.

Mike Hope, Rocking R Bar, testified on Tuesday as well.

Gallik and Hope argued that bars and restaurants are controlled environments that are required to follow health guidelines like social distancing, mask requirements and strict sanitation. They said when people aren’t at bars, they’re likely at private homes or dorm rooms, where health rules aren’t being enforced.

Gallik also tried to discredit the studies that found people are more likely to contract the virus at bars and restaurants. He said those studies didn’t consider whether the businesses were following virus-related policies and didn’t directly show that bars and restaurants in Gallatin County caused an increase in cases at the time the policy was implemented.

On Wednesday, Lambert spent an hour-and-a-half cross-examining Hope, trying to reaffirm that the closing time was necessary to curb the spread of the virus. He also said that the county was tasked with proving that state law granted it authority to make health rules meant to prevent spread of a communicable disease.

Lambert said the bar has received about $155,000 in state and federal coronavirus aid this year, claiming that can cover some of the bar’s losses.

He said that Hope called him 15 minutes after the county board of health passed the 10 p.m. closing time to say he would not follow the rule.

Lambert went over criteria that the board of health used to make virus-related policies like the number of deaths, the number of people infected and how many people were in the hospital because of the illness. The criteria also considered studies, wastewater samples and that younger people were contracting the virus at a high rate.

He asked Hope whether the health board should consider that criteria in making virus-related rules.

Hope agreed on some of the criteria, but said it didn’t look at the “whole picture” and the economic impacts on businesses. For certain criteria, like younger people driving spread of the disease, Hope said he wasn’t a health official and couldn’t agree or disagree on it.

“And because you’re a hospitality operator, maybe you should defer decisions like that to the health officer,” Lambert said to Hope.

After the hearing, Lambert told the Chronicle that he asked that the bar follow the rule until March 1 because it’s unknown what will happen by then. The health board may change that rule before then, which would make the lawsuit moot.

“It’s going to depend on what happens to the virus,” Lambert said.

The case may go to trial, he said, but, for now, the preliminary injunction requires the bar to close by 10 p.m.

If the bar continues to violate the rule, Lambert said, it could be found contempt of court, which gives the judge various powers to enforce the order. He said he would also ask that the judge order the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office or the Bozeman Police Department to enforce the closure time.

“The sheriff and police need to enforce that,” Lambert said. “That’s pretty much all that we’re going to be able to say about that right now.”

Hope and Gallik did not respond to requests for comment later Wednesday.

Shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday, patrons started leaving the Rocking R Bar. The bar was closing. Cars parked along Main Street started clearing out.

Around 10:15 p.m., a group of people stopped and looked into the window of the bar. Then they walked away.  

Support Local Journalism

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

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