The Gallatin County Health Board voted on Monday, April 5, to extend the county’s mask mandate until Thursday, May 27. Rising COVID-19 case numbers in March guided the board’s decision to extend the mask mandate, which would have otherwise expired on this coming Tuesday, April 20. The board also approved revisions for business operations that allow more people to be seated at a table at one time. 

In February, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) repealed the statewide mask mandate, allowing local governments to dictate their own rules and regulations for the pandemic. Gallatin County is one of 13 Montana counties, reservations and cities with mask mandates still in place. The Montana legislature, however, is considering a measure that will lower the funds local governments receive from the American Rescue Plan by 20% if they have stricter health guidelines than the state at whole.

Gallatin County’s average number of  COVID-19 cases  has been slowly rising since Monday, March 8. On the day of the recent health board meeting, the seven-day average was 42.7 new daily cases per 100,000 residents. The Harvard Institute for Global Health designates an average above 25 cases per 100,000 residents as evidence of a high level of spread. The average percentage of positive COVID-19 test results per total number of tests was above 10%, which is an indicator that there are more infected people than the tests show.

“It does make some sense to me that when you have thousands of people who have not yet been able to get access to the vaccine, we have variants circulating and we have higher case numbers than anywhere else in the state, that [the mask requirement] is one of the provisions that really doesn’t have a lot of costs to businesses, and in fact some businesses are asking us to do it,” Health Officer Matt Kelley said to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Another factor in extending the mandate through the end of May is the nearing end of the college semester. The exodus of college students from Bozeman will hopefully take some pressure off the need for a mask mandate. The board voted 7-2 to extend the mask mandate into May. The two dissenting votes were made by County Commissioner Joe Skinner and board member Chris Budeski.

In addition to extending the mask mandate, the Board decided to change the number of people allowed at a single dining or bar table from six to eight and reduced the minimum distance between bar stools from six feet down to three feet. “We are looking for ways to allow businesses to continue to operate [and ways] to operate a bit more freely,” Kelley said. 

The board will meet again in May to reconsider further extending the mask mandate and adjusting other COVID-19 regulations based on the state of the county at that time.