BILLINGS — All bars, restaurants, brew pubs, wineries and casinos in Yellowstone County have been closed for one week in an effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) county health officials said Monday.
“This is by far the most difficult decision I have ever made as the health officer,” Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said. “This is where pandemic becomes very, very real. We’re not only talking about only economic impacts from a pandemic, we’re talking about people’s jobs, and we’re talking about businesses and their livelihoods.”
“This is not what any of us ever hope to do. We are in a situation that is unprecedented. We need to take whatever steps we can to limit the impact of this disease," he added.
Restaurants are allowed to sell takeout food, according to the order signed by Felton.
“The restaurants will be closed to dine-in customers. However, if they have takeout or delivery services, those can continue," Felton said.
In addition, food service establishments that serve a specific population, such as a universities or nursing homes with dining halls or cafeterias, will remain open.
The ban lasts through midnight March 23. Felton said the temporary restaurant shutdown gives health officials time to assess the COVID-19 spread in the community.
It also gives health officials the time to work with restaurant operators to implement social distancing protocol in restaurant operation.
“It also gives us some time to work with those operators to begin to identify other things to help with social distancing, the idea of keeping people far enough away from each other or have less risk to the exposure of disease," Felton said.
“We know that in the next few days we will start to receive a very large number of test results coming back. That will certainly be helpful in determining how widespread the disease is and what the extent of community spread is," Felton said.
Felton said local establishments will be notified of the order to close, and the decision was not made lightly.
“This was not a decision that was made easily or rapidly. We have a very close-knit public health community. There has been a lot of communication between our local health officers, the state health department, and trying to figure out the best way to go about this,” Felton said. “Although it seems sudden because it’s here, it is not something that sort of came up in the last hour or two.”
He explained that the order is enforceable by police bus added that he doesn't expect to run into that problem.
"In what I believe to be the extremely unlikely circumstance that someone decided they were going to operate in defiance of this order, our approach is always educational first to make sure they know what the order is and how long it will last,” Felton said.
“If someone still refused, then we would be forced to involved law enforcement to stop the operation. It is a legally enforceable order," he added.
Gymnasium and theater operators are exempt from this order because social distancing procedures can be followed at those establishments, according to Felton.
“It appears that most of the gym operators have already canceled fitness classes. Which leaves free weights and machine exercises to do, which creates a sort of natural social distancing. With respect to theaters, it seems like there’s enough room in most theaters where people can spread out," Felton said.
Felton said community health leaders have planned for pandemics in the past, but this is the first to see this kind of response.
“This is truly an unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves. We have planned for pandemics. We thought several diseases in the past might do this: H1N1 flu, SARS, MERS. For just about everyone around today, this is the really gigantic pandemic we would have to deal with," Felton said.