County Board of Health adopts stricter rules to curb COVID-19 spread

The Cascade County City-County Board of Health voted during their Oct. 28 special meeting to impose stricter measures beginning Nov. 1 in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

Those measures will remain in effect until the county drops to a rate of 25 per 100,000 new cases per day for four weeks, according to the county.

Currently, the county’s rate is 64 per 100,000, according to Trisha Gardner, county health officer.

The board met for more than three hours.

So far, the board has voted to reduce the attendance maximum for indoor and outdoor events to 50 regardless of whether distancing can be achieved.

That restriction does not apply to schools, polling places, childcare facilities or weekly worship services if distancing can be maintained, but other church related functions are subject to the restriction, according to the health board document, that was not provided to the media or the public in advance of the meeting, or posted with the meeting agenda.

The board voted to reduce capacity to 50 percent for restaurants, food courts, cafes, coffee houses, bars, brew pubs, taverns, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, special licensees, clubs and casinos.

Exemptions to that include: university dining facilities, room service in hotels, crisis shelters or similar institutions, airport concessionaires and any facilities necessary for the response to the emergency, which may continue to operate using necessary-only personnel, according to the county document.

The board made no change to closing time for bars and restaurants, which is currently 12:30 a.m. under Gov. Steve Bullock’s reopening plan.

Cascade County added another 81 COVID-19 cases on Oct. 28, bringing the county’s total to 1,904. Of those, 1,012 are active, according to the state map.

During the health board meeting, Gardner said there are currently 59 COVID-19 patients at Benefis Health System, 33 of which are county residents. That’s 104 percent of the hospital’s capacity, she said.

There have been 26 COVID-19 related deaths in the county, Gardner said.

The positivity rate is 26.8 percent, she said.

Gardner said that CCHD has fielded complaints against 234 businesses since March and been in touch with 162 businesses from July 15-Oct. 26 regarding complaints.

Among those, Gardner said the complaints included:

  • 4 hotels/motels
  • 2 daycares
  • 2 schools
  • 6 churches
  • 2 long-term care facilities
  • 11 gas stations
  • 11 grocery stores
  • 58 bars/restaurants/casinos
  • 1 fitness center
  • 25 retail
  • 9 salon/massage/chiropractor businesses
  • 3 medical/dental/vision
  • 3 recreation sites
  • 25 others

Most of those complaints have been masks or distancing, Gardner said.

Gardner said she was aware of a number of upcoming planned events that would be impacted by the change, including conferences, a fight, a bodybuilding event, tradeshows. It would also apply to family gatherings, birthday parties, Halloween parties, etc.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter asked the board to consider more attendees for larger venues if they can distance.

Commissioner Jane Weber, who is a health board member, said that there have been larger events at Montana Expo Park when organizers said they’d distance or wear masks, but didn’t.

Gardner said that they aren’t seeing people distance in these instances and “where there are more and more people gathering we see more spread.”

Hillary Shepherd, director of the Great Falls Symphony Association, said that this restriction would eliminate their ability to have live performances in the Mansfield Theater.

The normal theater capacity is about 1,760, she said, and they’re able to distance. She said they haven’t had any complaints of violations at their concerts so far that have had limited ticket availability and masks were required.

In an Oct. 28 letter to the community, Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore wrote:

“As I have monitored the school district and community increase in the spread of COVID-19, listened to our doctors and health care officials express concern, and reflected on the situation, I do not believe that this a political or constitutional issue for debate or resistance among our community leaders or citizens. The truth is that Montana, along with 46 other states, is experiencing a significant uptick in active COVID cases that require medical attention and hospitalization.

I would like to encourage all of us to step up our voluntary actions to slow the spread of COVID. We need unity in our community now more than ever before. Individuals, organizations, businesses and groups are being asked to increase compliance with requirements and join collaborative partnerships with health officials to educate, inform, and take action to reduce the community spread of COVID-19.

If we want to keep schools open, businesses open, and provide adequate medical aide to those who need it most, we all need to take personal responsibility to protect others to the degree we can from this virus.”