In the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases across Gallatin County, the Board of Health met on Friday, Nov. 6, approving new restrictions on businesses designed to subdue transmission throughout the community.
Under the new rules, gatherings are limited to a maximum of 25 people. Places where social distancing is plausible and manageable, such as schools and places of worship, are exempt from these requirements. Table occupancy at restaurants is now limited to six people, and the maximum capacity of bars, restaurants, fitness centers, distilleries and other high-risk places of assembly is restricted to 50%. Prior to the adoption of the amended rules, the maximum capacity was 75%. Additionally, the revision changes the required closing time for restaurants and bars to 10:00 p.m. instead of the previous 12:30 a.m. deadline. Under the rule, businesses are still allowed to provide carry out and delivery services after 10 p.m..
“What we’re after here is we’re trying to address events and gatherings that pose risk due to contact between people who otherwise would not be together if not for that event, that meeting, that party, that festival, that concert,” Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said in his meeting report.
There were 822 active cases of COVID-19 in Gallatin County and 16 current hospitalizations as of Wednesday, Nov. 11, according to the health department’s public COVID-19 dashboard, accessed at https://www.healthygallatin.org/coronavirus-covid-19/. The county also reported three new COVID-19-related deaths on Monday, Nov. 9, bringing the total number to 13.
As contact tracers are being confronted with more than 100-150 new cases per day, the health department is falling behind on tracking down the contact networks of people who have tested positive. In a press release on Wednesday, Nov. 4, the health department wrote that it, “was not able to process and report all cases reported on Tuesday, Nov. 3,” resulting in a 91-count backlog of cases going into Wednesday. This delay means that contact tracers are unable to conduct full interviews with individuals who have tested positive and are forced to limit their investigation into identifying only close contacts who are at higher risk of serious symptoms, according to Kelley.
“We definitely are not casting as wide a net as we once were when we were getting 5-10 cases per day,” Kelley said.
The county is experiencing an average rate of 18.7% of tests returning positive according to its Nov. 6 weekly surveillance report, part of a rising trend that “creates additional concerns about our testing system,” according to Kelley. In “near-daily” conversations with MSU, Kelley said that the capacity of quarantine and isolation housing at the university is being “pushed to the limit.”
“Q/I [quarantine/isolation] housing is busier now than earlier in the semester,” said Michael Becker, MSU spokesperson. “That tracks with the widespread community transmission we’re seeing reported by the Gallatin City-County Health Department around the county. MSU has capacity remaining, however, and foresees being able to meet our Q/I needs through the end of the semester.”
The community is also seeing increasing case numbers in long-term care facilities with high-risk residents.
In public comment regarding the proposed revisions, some community members expressed opposition for the measures due to potential economic impacts. A frequent point of dispute centered on the decision to move the mandatory closing time for bars and restaurants to 10:00 p.m., a change that some business owners were concerned would cut off a significant portion of their business.
“I think what’s not being taken into account is that downtown businesses, especially bars in particular, we make a majority of our profit between 9 [p.m.] and 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday, Saturdays. And cutting us down to 10 p.m., if this goes through, we already have plans in the works to cut our workforce from 21 people to 5,” said Chet Trumbull, general manager of Bar Nine. “That means I have to lay off everyone else because the loans are gone, all the extra help is gone… at that point, somebody with a business model like a bar cannot survive downtown.”
Some community members also asked the Board of Health to consider the impact of the new measures on mental health in the community, sharing the stories of relatives and friends who have taken their own lives as a result of challenges brought on by the pandemic. People also asked the Board for stronger enforcement of current rules, such as the mask mandate, rather than the introduction of new rules.
Others shared support for the measures, pointing out the stress that has been placed on Bozeman’s COVID-19 response infrastructure.
“Right now, we are seeing those very high rates of new infection and seem to be breaking records with each day. We have an unprecedented demand on our drive-up testing sites, our viral triage sites and our COVID hotlines,” said Mark Williams, Chief Physician Officer for Bozeman Health. “We have an increasing number of our own care team members who have to either isolate or quarantine due to community spread and non-workplace exposures.”
Williams said that, in recent days, the available bed count at Bozeman Health in critical care and respiratory care units where COVID-19 patients can be placed has “dropped below 10%.”
In some cases, community members argued that more stringent restrictions were needed.
“If anything, I’d like to see the restrictions go further than these amendments so we can break the infection cycle as quickly as possible,” said Jamie Mazer, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at MSU.
Following public comment and discussion, the Board moved unanimously to adopt the new rules.
“The enormity of our current situation and decision is not lost on me and it’s not lost on us as a board, we take it very seriously,” Board member Chris Coburn said in his statement supporting the motion. “The truth is that this situation is critical, we’re seeing healthcare systems around the state and around the country pushed to and sometimes past their absolute max. If we don’t intensify our response now, that can happen here.”
“I ask you to make this matter,” Kelley said. “And what I mean by that is we now have businesses who are sacrificing again and I hope we all take this seriously and make it matter for them by staying out of house parties, by driving down the case numbers.”
In an email on Tuesday, Nov. 10, Dean of Students Matt Caires, Ed.D, informed students that gatherings of more than 25 people would be a violation of the Code of Student Conduct and may be subject to discipline
The new restrictions will be in effect for 90 days, or until the Board of Health changes the rule based on epidemiological data. If any measures are implemented by the State of Montana that are more strict than Gallatin County’s rules, those restrictions would override the Board of Health.