BOZEMAN — The Gallatin City-County Board of Health took no action on the Phase 2 reopening rule that restricts how certain businesses operate during the pandemic and the face-covering rule on Wednesday morning.
The Phase 2 reopening rule is set to expire on Monday, May 10th and the face-covering rule will expire Thursday, May 27.
Health Officer Matt Kelley and Deputy County Attorney Erin Arnold presented and took questions from board members on how recent bills out of the Montana Legislature may prevent enforcement of local emergency rules designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Gallatin County.
House Bill 121 was signed by Governor Gianforte, and effectively strips away authority from local health boards, requiring approval from city and county elected officials to enforce local emergency rules made by the board of health.
Kelley and Arnold said House Bill 257, which the Gallatin City-County Health Department expects Governor Gianforte to sign, makes many questions about local government’s authority to enforce local health rules unclear.
If signed by the Governor, the new law could prevent county- or city-wide orders that apply to all businesses and potentially restricts their customers.
That includes requiring businesses to make customers wear face coverings and certain rules that restrict how a business can operate, like COVID-19 related capacity limits, social distancing rules, etc.
Arnold told the Board of Health businesses can still ask their customers to wear masks and practice social distancing, however, it would be difficult to enforce.
Arnold added local government can enforce state laws if the Legislature and Governor put health rules in place.
After the passage of House Bill 121, Kelley told the Board of Health the original plan for Wednesday morning’s meeting was to recommend a resolution to loosen some restrictions.
Those would have needed approval from the City and County Commission to be enforced.
However, House Bill 257 would further prohibit local government from adopting or extending local emergency rules, so it was recommended no action be taken.
During public comment, a Gallatin County resident asked if the Phase 2 reopening restrictions and face-covering would be immediately unenforceable because the Governor had already signed House Bill 121.
Deputy County Attorney Arnold clarified while the law is effective immediately, it cannot apply retroactively to rules implemented before the signing of the bill.
The rules are set to expire at the original dates unless the Governor signs HB 257.
If HB 257 becomes law, local government will no longer have the authority to enforce the local emergency rules.
House Bill 257, was sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, and says businesses cannot be penalized for not following any local ordinance or public-health order that denies customers access to their services.
“Lawmakers in Helena seem to have taken away local control for these decisions,” said Matt Kelley, Health Officer with Gallatin City-County Health Department in a press release from the County.
“Our current assessment is that local communities lost this control and that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to adopt or enforce local rules designed to slow disease transmission.”