The Gallatin City-County Health Board decided Thursday not to change course on the local reopening, despite Montana seeing its biggest single-day jump in coronavirus cases and some Gallatin County residents calling for masks to be mandatory.
About 20 people submitted comments to the health board in advance of its monthly meeting urging the board to require masks in indoor spaces to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Board members declined to act on the requests.
“These comments are not falling on deaf ears, and we plan to address this issue at next month’s board of health meeting,” said board member Seth Walk.
Walk, an associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Montana State University, said the board is compiling scientific data and expert opinions on masks to inform its upcoming discussion.
The calls for new restrictions come as Gallatin County is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.
On Thursday, the county added eight new cases, bringing its total number of active cases to 29 with one hospitalization. Gallatin County has the highest number of active cases in Montana. The county also has had the highest total number of cases at 229.
“In the last couple weeks, we’re at the first time where we’re working to reopen at the same time that we’re seeing cases,” said health officer Matt Kelley. “That’s really challenging because those things tend to contradict one another. … I’ve likened it to jogging in roller skates.”
Montana reached its highest single-day total on Thursday with 37 new cases, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. The state had 210 active cases with 15 hospitalizations. As of Thursday, Montana has had 572 recoveries and 21 deaths for a total of 803 cases.
“If we are not going to take this seriously, if we let down our guard here, we’re going to continue to see cases,” Kelley said.
Gallatin County saw its first spike in cases in late March. In response, the Gallatin City-County Health Board limited bars and restaurants to takeout, drive-thru and delivery services. The board’s actions were followed by a statewide stay-at-home order. The local and state actions led to a decline in cases, Kelley said.
By late April, Gallatin County — and much of Montana — stopped seeing new cases and began to slowly reopen.
As restrictions have eased, Gallatin County has been one of a handful of counties that has seen a rise in cases. Since June 3, Gallatin County has identified new COVID-19 cases almost every day.
“As we were reopening, which has been really good for the economy and for business owners, we said we were likely to see new cases, and that’s happened,” Kelley said. “That’s happened locally. That’s happened statewide. That’s happened nationally.”
Even with the jump, he said the Gallatin City-County Health Department continues to be able to manage all new cases.
The department has had some trouble getting people and businesses to comply with the COVID-19 restrictions.
Kelley said some of those with COVID-19 have mild symptoms and have been resistant to health department requirements that they remain isolated to avoid infecting others.
While conducting spot checks, the health department has also found some businesses violating reopening guidelines, Kelley said. The Gallatin County Attorney’s Office has sent letters to the businesses outlining their violations and asking them to comply with the guidelines. In follow-up visits, the health department has found the businesses are now adhering to the rules.
The health department has the option of imposing civil or criminal penalties on rule violators.
“I just don’t want to get in a position where we think we are limited to asking people to comply and being hopeful that they will because we are seeing that is not the case in some settings across many industries,” said board member Christopher Coburn.
In recent days, Big Sky has become the health department’s main focus as several cases in the town have been connected to the same social group, Kelley said. In response, Bozeman Health is now working to expand COVID-19 testing at the Big Sky Medical Center.
Many of the county’s new cases, like those in Big Sky, are connected to large group settings, such as parties and bars.
“My biggest advice to people as we head into the July Fourth weekend is: If you find yourself in a crowded setting, get out of it if you can,” Kelley said. “And if you can’t socially distance, put a face mask on.”