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This week, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that state support will be available for counties seeking to increase enforcement of coronavirus-related health violations.

The announcement signaled a significant change in the state’s public health response to COVID-19. Just weeks ago, Bullock declined White House advice to fine individuals and businesses for not complying with mask mandates, saying government regulation alone would not solve the problem.

But as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise sharply in Montana, Bullock walked back that pronouncement on Tuesday, telling local health officials to increase restrictions and enforcement. Bullock has said local measures are more effective than statewide restrictions, but many local public health officials say they don’t have the public buy-in or capacity to increase enforcement measures on their own. 

To help them, Bullock said, he will direct federal coronavirus relief dollars to local public health agencies to pay for increased hours and hiring new contract workers. He also said he will make state legal assistance available to counties.

“We can only be successful in beating this virus if we all work together as a team,” Bullock said at the press conference Tuesday. 

CARES ACT MONEY FOR SUPPORT AND ENFORCEMENT BOTH

Across the state, counties have taken different approaches to enforcement action aimed at businesses that violate state and local COVID-19 restrictions. Bullock praised Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow and Lewis and Clark counties for their enforcement efforts so far. He also said other counties need to step up.

In some cases, that will likely result in the state providing coronavirus relief funds to help counties fund enforcement against businesses that are being kept open, at least in part, by coronavirus relief funds.

A review of enforcement actions by Montana Free Press found that’s already been the case in several communities.

In Park County, the health department sent a warning letter to Matt’s Butcher Shop and Deli in Livingston, which received a $140,000 grant through the Montana Meat Processing Infrastructure Grant, part of the state’s $1.25 billion CARES Act relief money. The shop put up a sign saying, “NOTICE: Our employees are not required to wear mask… If you are concerned about us not wearing mask… Please don’t enter this building… THANK YOU!!”

Matt’s Butcher Shop and Deli in Livingston. Credit: Johnathan Hettinger / MTFP

In Gallatin County, the health department has sent warning letters to at least six businesses. Of those, Bar IX, a popular Main Street bar in Bozeman, was sent a letter in June after the health department observed the business violating social distancing guidelines and operating above 75% capacity, the local regulatory limit. Yurashak Enterprises, the parent company of Bar IX, has received nearly $46,000 in state coronavirus relief, including a $10,000 business stabilization grant for BAR IX, another $10,000 business stabilization grant for Yurashak Enterprises, two $5,000 business adaptability grants and $15,835 in assistance through the Montana Loan Deferment Program.

Since the June 13 letter, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said, Bar IX has since demonstrated willingness to comply with the rules.

In Lewis and Clark County, 17 businesses have received an order of corrective action, which is generated after the department receives a second complaint about the same issue. One of those, Shellie’s Country Cafe, has received $7,939 in business adaptation grant funding. It’s not immediately clear whether any of the other 16 businesses have received relief funds from the state. 

After two Helena businesses — the Helena Farmers’ Market and Pizza Ranch — failed to comply with local health directives, the county health department asked the county attorney’s office to intervene. Both businesses received court orders directing them to comply with local health orders or shut down. 

The county also sent an order of corrective action to the Helena School District for violating health department orders regarding spectators at sporting events, said Health Officer Drenda Niemann.

YELLOWSTONE COUNTY WALKS BACK NEW RESTRICTIONS

Flathead County, which has the second-largest ongoing outbreak in Montana, and was singled out by Bullock last week as needing to take additional steps to combat the spread of COVID-19, declined on Thursday to pursue new enforcement actions. The county Board of Health also rejected a proposal to limit gatherings to 500 people — twice as high as Centers for Disease Control recommendations. 

Meanwhile, Yellowstone County has already signaled it would like help from the state. Yellowstone County has accounted for about one-fifth of COVID cases statewide, but has not yet taken any enforcement action against businesses or individuals, said Jeana Lervick, the county attorney’s chief in-house counsel. 

“We really have not found many valid complaints (likely for a number of reasons),” Lervick said in an email. “To be on the safe side we contact folks whose names come up and have a conversation about what they are doing to keep their patrons and staff safe. Everyone has been great about it and willing to listen and, if necessary, make changes.”

With cases continuing to rise and local hospitals nearing capacity, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton announced Oct. 5 he would implement increased restrictions, such as closing bars and restaurants by 10 p.m., capping the capacity of bars, restaurants, casinos and places of worship at 25% of normal, and limiting gatherings to 25 people if the county reached an average of 50 new cases a day. 

But after the county reached that threshold last weekend, Felton backpedaled on implementing those new restrictions, leaving only a 25-person gathering size limit in place when he announced a health order on Monday. 

Bullock said Tuesday that the vast majority of complaints to local health departments  are handled with a phone call or visit. 

Desnick said any time she walks into a business, workers immediately put on masks and take social distancing restrictions seriously. She said that makes her feel the need to visit more businesses personally, but that level of outreach is time-consuming.  

During the summer, she said, the Park County Health Department was better able to visit businesses to monitor compliance and assist with any questions about public safety. But in the past month, as cases have increased, so have the health department’s other responsibilities, such as testing contacts, contact tracing and flu shots, Desnick said. 

Desnick said Park County, like most places, is happy for more enforcement assistance.

“I think everyone in the state could use more help,” she said.

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Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.