What social distancing looks like in Montana’s great outdoors

Posted at 3:59 PM, Apr 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-26 12:39:31-04

Outdoor activity is explicitly granted the “essential” tag in Governor Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order from March 26. For many Montana residents, that meant skiing, snowboarding and, as the weather starts to warm up, hiking, bike riding, and other outdoor activities are perfectly fine to continue on. Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame 2014 Inductee Gerry Jennings is a perfect example of that.

“Just going out and going for a walk on the sidewalks or anywhere in the Great Falls area, there’s just plenty of outdoors to be had,” said Jennings. “We see kids on the playground, I have to admit that some of them are not separated and socially distancing, but you can.”

That last part raises some eyebrows. Another thing explicitly stated by Bullock is that a caveat of all these “essential activities” is that social distancing guidelines must still be followed. That means six feet or more between each person. According to Jennings, who gets outside just about 365 days each year, there is a lack of both signage and enforcement when it comes to social distancing.

This raises the question, exactly whose job is it to enforce the six feet requirements? In many parts of the world, law enforcement officials are breaking up large gatherings of too many people, but the six-foot guideline is a bit harder to keep in place.

In Seattle, police observe parkgoers from afar and periodically remind them to keep their distance. In Brooklyn, New York, the state with the most cases of COVID-19 in the country, NYPD officers roll past parks and sidewalks, flashing a sign that reminds people to stay at least six feet apart. In Florida, where beaches have started reopening to the public, a pastor was arrested in early April for continuing to hold large, in-person church services.

In July 2010, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released “ The Social Distancing Law Assessment Template ”, a study done in 15 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico in 2007 added to a new study in 2009-2010 to assess the “legal preparedness” to implement social distancing measures during a “potential influenza pandemic.”

The study is 57 pages long, so here are the highlights: states from the preliminary study found that they had adequate legal authority to implement and enforce social distancing measures, but there questions about local vs state laws, and coordination between agencies and jurisdictions. The second study yielded similar results, and states made plans to take corrective action, including educating policy-makers and partners about how to improve each jurisdiction’s capacity to implement these laws, clarifying existing laws, assisting businesses to help develop continuity of operations plans during an outbreak, and developing model public health emergency ordinances for local governments.

The CDC deemed the project a success and recommended that other states conduct a similar project to assess their legal preparedness for future outbreaks. While the study does not indicate if other states did or did not replicate the original studies, based on the United States’ preparedness for the Coronavirus Outbreak in 2019 and now 2020, and the number of legal questions that still remain about the enforcement of social distancing guidelines, it would seem as though those “studies” inadequately predicted how successful that enforcement would be.

While it has been scientifically proven that social distancing flattens the curve, and an immense amount of credit should be given to both citizens who have opted to do their part and stay inside whenever possible, and socially distance themselves whenever they go outside, and law enforcement officials, who have put themselves in harm’s way to enforce these laws for the good of society all over the country; it is apparent that the grey area in which the question of “who enforces these laws?” exists because, despite the studies done by the CDC, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and the former pandemic response team for the United States, the country was ill-prepared for how to respond to this pandemic in a number of ways, including enforcing social distancing guidelines.

As for Montana, Jennings explained that the unique layout of the Treasure State allows for people to continue to get outside whenever possible in a safe way.

“A lot of our life is outdoors, and aren’t we lucky to live in a state where the great outdoors is all around us. Do you realize we have 7.5 square miles per person in Montana? So, it really shouldn’t be too difficult for people to get outside,” she said. “Getting outdoors is good for mental and physical health, and I think in these times, it’s probably even better for our mental health. It’s important for us to realize that we can get off a couch, we can get away from a computer.”

The best way to enforce social distancing guidelines is simply to make sure that you stay at least six feet away from other people anytime you do the same. If you have questions about social distancing or the enforcement of CDC guidelines and suggestions, contact your local law enforcement agency.

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