Governor's order leaves questions at the local level

Posted at 12:29 AM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 16:14:41-04

HAMILTON — Gov. Steve Bullock's directive to reopen Montana after the coronavirus shutdown is creating detailed questions at the local government level, where leaders are scrambling to figure out how to implement the latest guidelines.

News of Bullock's guidelines is welcome in Ravalli County, where the stay-at-home orders have been creating concerns because of the limited number of COVID-19 cases. But how to implement the new directives is another matter.

Meeting just a couple of hours after the guidelines were released, the Ravalli County Board of Health acknowledged Bullock's "Phase 1" re-opening seem clear enough. But as the board dove deeper into the details the questions began to come up.

In particular, Board of Health Chair and County Commissioner Jeff Burrows called the new guidelines "arbitrary", noting differences in when, and which businesses will be allowed to open, forcing government to pick "winners and losers."

"We're going to open up all retail right on (April) 27," Burrows said. "So you can go, you can walk up and down Main Street, you shop, buy all day long up and down Main Street. But you can't go in and sit in the Coffee Cup. That to me, I don't understand it. Until May 4, all of a sudden arbitrarily a week later then restaurants are ok. What is that date based on? That to me seems like a coin toss."

Burrows said with business already closing, or unable "to survive a week", the county should just open everything up. But legal counsel said the county can't make guidelines less restrictive.

The county's Health Officer, Dr. Carol Calderwood, said her team hasn't had a chance to review all the guidelines, and will be able to give better answers to the Board tomorrow. That's also expected to include what message to send to the Bitterroot Valley's residents as everyone continues to go through this transition.

"Thinking about explaining to the businesses that this is what the governor said," Board of Health member Katie Scholl said. "You know, this is why we've decided to follow suit with what he said."

"We need to make people understand that they have this increased ability to do things now," Board of Health member Dr. Michael Turner added. "But if we're not careful we may start having more infections, and then we have to do something about it."

The Board planned to continue its meeting Thursday afternoon after the county's health team reviewed the guidelines.