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Gallatin County extends emergency rule, looks at enforcement of rules

Posted at 9:15 AM, Apr 16, 2020

BOZEMAN — The Gallatin City County Board of Health accomplished two things during their Wednesday morning meeting -- extended the emergency rule for businesses during the pandemic and they made it possible to enforce those who don’t follow the rules.

According to a Gallatin Media Center release, the board “voted to adopt a new emergency rule pertaining to isolation and quarantine that requires people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to stay home, and for people who have been identified by the Health Department as close contacts to a known case to also stay home.”

They also voted to extend the emergency rule from April 17 to April 24 to reflect the governor’s statewide mandate. The quarantine and isolation rule approval will make it possible for Gallatin County officials to charge misdemeanors for the rare cases where someone who has COVID-19 knowingly violates the stay-at-home directive or social distancing mandates.

“I want people to understand, I am not taking this lightly,” says Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department.

Kelley says this is a precaution that, while he doesn’t foresee it being used often, is necessary.

“When we have people who are not being compliant, we, as the lead public health organization in Gallatin County will take action,” Kelley says.

That action is to add the possibility within and during the duration of the Emergency Health Rule, working with the Gallatin County Attorney and sheriff, to allow misdemeanor charges for those knowingly testing positive with coronavirus and violate the governor’s mandates.

This could end with fines of up to $200 and a minimum of $10, with no jail time.

“We have had at least one individual who was not compliant who was at work and exposed individuals and we had to make those calls and let those people know that they were exposed,” Kelley says.

“How do you justify this continued overreaction and usurping of civil liberties in this county?” said one woman during Wednesday morning’s meeting. “Who does the public hold accountable when the Gallatin Valley Health Department oversteps their bounds?”

It’s a precaution that is not unopposed. Those like Montana State Representative Kerry White question what could this mean for freedom, asking why?

“I think it’s the duty of the health department to protect us from disease,” White said during the meeting’s public comment period. “But you are actually limiting. You are limiting healthy people.”

But to that question, Kelley says his eyes are on states with deaths not in the hundreds but at least 1,000.

“As I look out at what’s happening across the country, I see just yesterday a report that 25 people in one nursing in Richmond, Virginia when the virus got into the nursing home,” Kelley says. “We need to take the actions necessary to prevent the spread of this disease.”

The board also began discussing the logistics of what it would take to start re-opening businesses when the time comes, noting that the numbers of new cases has plateaued in the last few days and other methods of testing are being considered.