Google’s March 29 “community mobility report” for Montana showing changes in visitation patterns compared to baseline activity.

When the Missoula City-County Health Department on March 16 ordered all bars, restaurants and casinos to limit their services in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Environmental Health Division Director Shannon Therriault and her crew hit the ground running. An email went out alerting all county establishments of the news, and health inspectors spent that Thursday night and Saturday visiting haunts in Condon, Rock Creek, Huson and other corners of the county to conduct in-person compliance checks.

“Our goal was to talk with them, to tell them what the order is, how to comply, what it would look like to do take-out or delivery or curbside service in a way that most protects them, their staff and their customers,” Therriault said. “We did a lot of that the first weekend, talking with people about how they could improve what they were doing.”

In the weeks since, the scope of limitations on businesses and private individuals has only intensified, culminating with Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home directive on March 26. While that directive brought the entire state under the same restrictions, the task of enforcing the directive’s limitations has fallen to local officials, many of whom were already working to stay on top of a dynamic and ever-changing public health emergency. Recent news reports have hinted at how far that enforcement might go, from steep fines for repeated violations by citizens and businesses in Lewis and Clark County to possible arrests for blatant violations of social distancing in Yellowstone County. According to several county attorneys who spoke with Montana Free Press, though, their primary goal is to achieve voluntary compliance through education.

“We’re not setting up roadblocks, we’re not going to stop people for holding hands in public,” said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito. “Police are going to do their normal work. If they pull over a car … they pulled over that car because it committed some violation of some sort that gave them grounds to pull it over, not a violation of non-essential travel.”

Enforcement of Bullock’s directive has so far been complaint-driven, with county health officers being the primary recipients of reports of possible violations. According to Marissa Perry, Gov. Bullock’s communications director, any reports of suspected noncompliance sent to the governor’s office are referred to local health officers and law enforcement agencies. County officials from various departments collaborate to follow up and investigate such reports, and city or county law enforcement officers are dispatched to deal with emergency situations. 

“We want to be safe, but we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re demanding papers and trying to observe and surveil people to make sure they’re complying. That’s not the kind of community we want to be a part of.”

—Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner

The exact form that penalties may take varies. The directive offers county officials a number of civil and criminal avenues for enforcement, including temporary restraining orders, misdemeanor citations, and criminal prosecution for obstructing a local health officer in the performance of duties.

“For egregious violations, the Directive authorizes county attorneys, local public health, DPHHS [Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services], or the Attorney General to initiate formal enforcement actions,” Perry wrote via email. “But we’ve not seen a large need for that because Montanans are complying.”

Therriault said the most efficient enforcement measure Missoula County has identified to meet the intent of the directive is to secure a temporary restraining order. Her division has already spoken with the county attorney’s office to determine what would be required to secure such an order, but has not yet had to go that far. The county has dispatched law enforcement to investigate several complaints about bars continuing to operate in violation of the county’s earlier closure order, Therriault said. Those businesses were informed of the order, and subsequent follow-ups by Therriault’s division indicated they were complying.

“Our role in this is to make sure people understand what the orders are, how it applies to them, and then how they can take the steps to fulfill the intent of the order,” Therriault said, adding that her office has been busy fielding scores of calls from businesses seeking clarity on what constitutes “essential” service under Bullock’s directive, which exempts essential services from the directive. 

County attorneys in Yellowstone, Flathead, Gallatin and Cascade counties all reported that they were for the most part prepared for the statewide directive, and that they’ve been in regular communication with counterparts across Montana to discuss how other counties are dealing with the situation. With the exception of a few scattered complaints, all said the majority of citizens and businesses are complying with the various directives, orders and rules that have come down from different agencies. As of April 3, none had taken legal or civil enforcement actions.

“We’ve had really good luck. We haven’t had any huge issues,” said Cascade County Attorney Joshua Racki. “And when we have had something that could be a potential violation, we’ve sent someone over for education and they’ve always voluntarily complied.”

These observations of compliance with social distancing requirements appear bolstered by data released recently by Google on mobility changes in response to COVID-19. Google’s latest “community mobility report” for Montana, dated March 29, shows a significant decline in the number of people visiting entertainment and retail venues (51%), grocery stores (25%) and workplaces (37%) compared to baseline activity. The report was created using aggregated and anonymized location data from Google users who had turned on their location history.

The biggest question Montana and the nation continue to face is how long these limitations on business activity and socialization will remain in effect. That uncertainty has prompted Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner to develop multiple plans for enforcing state and local directives, and to consider certain contingencies, including office attorneys or administrative staff falling ill. The coronavirus has led to “lots of sleepless nights,” Ahner said, “trying to come up with the different variables, account for them all, and then wait to see what happens next.” For now, he said, he’s approaching potential violations on a case-by-case basis.

“We want to be safe, but we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re demanding papers and trying to observe and surveil people to make sure they’re complying,” Ahner said. “That’s not the kind of community we want to be a part of.”

Gallatin County is the region of Montana hardest hit by COVID-19 so far, with 93 positive cases reported as of 8 a.m. on April 3. Even with such high numbers, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said law enforcement officers are being “firm but fair,” and described the push for voluntary compliance with health directives as “completely successful.” As the county continues to work to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Lambert said it’s critical that local elected officials not get overwhelmed by the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic. 

“First and foremost, I’m just trying to make sure that the issues I’m confronted with every day are handled as best as possible,” Lambert said. “There’s two or three brand-new things every day to deal with, so the first thing you should do is keep a level head, work with your law enforcement officers, work with your local health officers, and deal with those situations that present themselves today.”

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...