HELENA — The Lewis and Clark City-County Board of Health has unanimously adopted emergency rules and regulations for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of the adopted rules and regulations are already in effect under Gov. Steve Bullock’s current order.
The Board had largely depended on the mandates from the governor, and are choosing to adopt the new rules locally due to the uncertainty of what may be in effect under Gov.-elect Gianforte.
Gianforte has yet to formally announce whether he will continue the state’s current measures, lift the measures or enact his own.
Montana Law allows for County Boards of Health to enact stricter rules compared to the State when responding to public health issues.
Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Drenda Niemann, who is not a member of the board but advises them, said until vaccination is widely available non-pharmaceutical regulations are the only tools at hand.
“These are really instruments of freedom,” Niemann said. “They have allowed us to go about business as we’ve needed to in this community. We’ve been able to keep businesses open and schools open because of the public health strategies. Without the masks and distancing and these other comprehensive efforts that we have had, it’s likely we would have been under a more strict lockdown.”
The new emergency rules and regulations continue face-covering requirements in businesses, government offices, and locations with indoor space that is open to the public. Schools, including colleges, were specifically added to the list of places where a mask would be required.
Organized outdoor activities will also require a face covering with certain exemptions like school athletes.
The Board also set a definitive criteria for when certain rules would tighten, loosen or even end. Criteria included health care system capacity, community compliance, and testing capacity. Gyms were added to capacity and hour limits with bars, restaurants, breweries, and casinos.
Events in Lewis and Clark County are capped at 250 people, with any gathering of more than 25 people needing approval from the County Health Department.
Plans need to be submitted 30 days in advance of the event. Youth sports and spectators are considered two separate events allowing for more spectators to attend while following distancing and mask requirements.
Public comment on Thursday at the Board of Health meeting saw mixed reactions, with some applauding the board for their actions while others condemned them for the adoption.
The Lewis and Clark County Commission and the City of Helena Commission sent letters of support for the rules.
County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen, who also sits on the Board of health, said he understands how hard the pandemic has been both from a health and economic crisis.
He added it’s becoming more and more common for people to know someone that’s been hospitalized or died from the disease, and called upon residents to help look out for each other.
“I implore people to take care of themselves and others,” said Huntahusen. “This group of people, the Board of Health, is trying their best to follow the law and support the entire community.”
City of Helena Commissioner Sean Logan, speaking on his own behalf, objected to the rules saying there wasn’t enough input from the community and a lot of key community partners were unaware the Board of Health was going to enact the restrictions.
“With an issue as important as this, one that greatly affects the lives and livelihoods of the citizens, businesses, and employers of Lewis and Clark County there should be a high level of transparency and that does not seem to be the case here and I can not support this action by the Board of Health,” said Logan.
Other public comments against the new rules included individuals against the face-covering requirements, noting a stricken line from the document exempting face-covering requirements for individuals with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask or face shield.
“My son has sensory processing disorder,” said RyAnn Christman. “He is unable to tolerate long term or chronic use of a mask or any type of face covering. Inturn said he can not attend in-call learning. You are removing federal protections placed to protect students including my son.”
PureView Health Center and St. Peter’s Health supported the emergency rules and believed they are needed in the community right now.
“We are overwhelmed,” said Jill Steeley, PureView CEO. “I am concerned about what will happen to people in our community if the health care organizations can not provide emergency and routine care because their resources are committed more and more to COVID-19 response.”
“It’s important that the members of the public understand the stress that the hospital is under right now in terms of our ability to provide care for our community,” said Dr. Anne Anglim, St. Peter’s Health Hospitalist, and Infectious Disease Specialist. “Right now one-third of our hospital beds with patients who are ill with COVID-19. They range all the way down to the age of 38.”