Cascade County health board adopts mask requirement

The Cascade County City-County Board of Health voted 5-2 to implement a local health order that requires masks.

There are some exceptions, including when outside and able to social distance; when eating and drinking; with health conditions; for identification purposes and when doing strenuous physical activity or swimming.

Owen Robinson, board chair and a City Commissioner, and Cascade County Commissioner Joe Briggs voted against the motion.

Briggs was appointed as the County Commission’s representative to the health board on Feb. 17, replacing Jane Weber, who resigned effective Jan. 22.

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Those voting in favor included Dr. Ray Geyer, an infections disease doctor at the Great Falls Clinic; Dr. Matt Martin, a dentist; Superintendent Tom Moore of Great Falls Public Schools; Terry Barber, a retired pharmacist and Amanda Ball, who works for Child and Family Services at the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

The local health order that restricted operating capacity and hours for bars, restaurants and similar establishments has expired since the county reached the threshold of four consecutive weeks with an average new daily case rate of 25 per 100,000.

That means that bars, restaurants and the other establishments specified in the health order that went into effect Jan. 22, can now operate at 100 percent and regular operating hours.

The board also voted 5-2 to allow event sizes to be up to 75 percent of venue capacity when social distancing can be maintained and events over that would be considered on a case by case basis with the submission of an even plan to CCHD.

Briggs and Moore voted against the motion.

The newly adopted restrictions remain in place until the county reaches a case rate of 10 per 100,000 or less for two consecutive weeks.

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The case rate for Feb. 11-17 was 15 per 100,000, according to Trisha Gardner, county health officer.

After two hours of public comment and discussion, the board opted to institute the mask rule in the interest of continuing to keep cases low while lifting the other restrictions.

The board met for another hour discussing the event size restriction and the expiration of the new rules.

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Gardner said that the most recent positivity rate from Feb.10 was 7.3 percent. She said that the goal is to get that rate down under five percent.

As of Feb. 17, there were 7,549 total cases in Cascade County, and of those, 117 were active, according to the state map.

According to the state dashboard, 12,749 doses of the vaccine had been administered in the county and 3,514 people were fully vaccinated.

Gardner said that 484 people go their second dose on Fbe. 17 at the community vaccination clinic and today’s numbers weren’t added into the state totals yet.

She said that the Cascade County City-County Health Department is still contacting people on the waitlist but is returning to the online portal for signups for appointments. The next sign up opens 9 a.m. Feb. 18.

Briggs moved that no mask requirement be adopted, but the motion was not seconded and failed.

Geyer, the infectious disease doctor, moved to adopt the local mask requirement and added the exception for people able to social distance outside.

Several members of the public spoke in favor of the mask requirement, including Dr. Bridget Brennan MD, emergency physician and chief medical officer for Benefis Medical Group. About five people spoke in support, of about two dozen commenters.

The majority of those speaking during public comment were opposed to the mask requirement. 

Throughout the meeting, commenters said that they felt their opinions were not being taken into consideration by the board.

Undersheriff Cory Reeves said that the rule was unenforceable and that the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office would not enforce anything to do with masks.

Carey Ann Haight, chief civil deputy for the Cascade County Attorney’s Office, said that state law includes provisions for enforcing local health orders and those issued by the county health board carry misdemeanor criminal charges for violations. She said that state law also makes it a misdemeanor for local law enforcement to refuse to assist the local health officials with enforcing their orders.

Haight said that so far, the county had not pushed enforcement actions regarding masks or other COVID-19 restrictions and had relied on the cooperation of the community.

In October, Garder said that CCHD has followed up with more than 200 businesses regarding those complaints. Initially it’s an investigation that involves a phone call to discuss the issue. If noncompliance continues, Gardner said CCHD can issue an order of correction and has issued three orders of corrections. If problems continue, the matter can be referred to the county attorney for legal action.

Gardner told The Electric recently that complaints of COVID-19 noncompliance had decreased and no other orders of correction had been issued.

A bill in the Montana Legislature was approved in a preliminary vote in the Montana House of Representatives that would “prohibit local governments or health officials from compelling businesses, via health mandates, to turn away customers who don’t comply with health requirements. It would also prevent them from taking any enforcement action against businesses that don’t enforce health orders. It would apply to the state’s disaster emergency powers as well,” according to a report from Montana Free Press

The bill must still pass a final vote by the House and if successful, will go to the Senate for consideration, according to Montana Free Press.

The board is still meeting and will be discussing factors for when the order will be lifted. This story will be updated.