Coronavirus: County emergency

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Coronavirus: County emergency

J.P. Plutt photos

Beaverhead County Commissioner and Chairman Tom Rice declared an emergency for the county Monday, to allow its disaster emergency services personnel the flexibility they need to respond to the new coronavirus.

Meanwhile, county and state officials have issued restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people and closed dine-in options to limit the spread of the virus. Gov. Steve Bullock extended the statewide restrictions to April 10, which he may extend – or shorten again – if warranted.

There are no positive coronavirus cases in Beaverhead County as of Tuesday morning. There are 46 confirmed positive coronavirus cases in Montana. Of those, the majority are in Gallatin County, followed by Yellowstone and Missoula counties; there is one case in Madison County. There are 33,404 cases and 400 deaths in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Rice issued the emergency declaration at the recommendation of Disaster Emergency Services (DES) Coordinator Tom Wagenknecht as a precautionary measure. Having the declaration in place gives the county added authority to seek federal and state emergency funding if necessary.

Montana code allows counties with an emergency declaration to seek an emergency levy of up to two mills in a year. That must be approved unanimously by the commission; Rice stressed the commissioners are not asking for an emergency levy with the declaration. If they do, it would be discussed and voted on in a public meeting.

There is no time limit for the county’s emergency declaration, Rice said; the declaration can be removed as needed.

Director of Public Health Sue Hansen stated in a public health report Monday the cases in Gallatin County came from within the community, not from travelers. Locally, Beaverhead County tested 28 individuals, with 23 testing negative, and the remaining tests pending.

“There are positive cases identified in counties that surround us, so it’s just a matter of time before we have positive cases in the county,” she wrote in her report. “It is imperative that people continue to self-isolate and practice social distancing (six feet apart). According to Matt Kelley, Gallatin County Health Officer, the biggest enemy of public health is complacency about the virus.

“I have heard complaints from the public worried that some businesses are not complying to the governor’s directive,” Hansen continued in her report. “Public health implores everyone to please take personal responsibility to help contain the spread of this virus. Everyone has a role in this action – it is likely to get worse before it gets better.”

State, local restrictions instituted

Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency to respond to the new coronavirus March 12, ordering public school closures until March 27. On Friday, March 20, Bullock issued a directive to close dining areas in restaurants, bars, casinos and other businesses where people congregate (such as health clubs and gyms), also through March 27. Businesses that serve food and drink may still offer carryout or delivery services. All the same restrictions are now in place until April 10.

The restrictions do not apply to businesses that offer food and beverage not for on-site consumption (like grocery and convenience stores) but Bullock encourages those businesses to maintain social distancing protocols and limit the number of people in the stores if possible. Bullock extended all closures and directives to April 10 on Tuesday, and may extend them again as needed.

Beaverhead County Public Health Officer Dr. Megan Evans issued an order Friday in line with Bullock’s directive to restrict gatherings of more than 10 people, including faith organizations.

Earlier last week, the county public health board decided to issue recommendations for keeping distance from each other when out in public, keeping gatherings below 10 people, and practicing disinfection and handwashing techniques to reduce the chances of virus spread. However, officials discovered a need to be more strict when area counties closed their restaurants and bars to public gatherings, and some county businesses had patrons sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.

“There was blatant neglect in some of these stores and bars, who were not doing what we asked them to do,” Hansen said at the Friday meeting. “So we felt this was something that was not going to work as a recommendation, and we needed to mandate closures.”

Bullock’s order came out as the county health department discussed the potential new restrictions, so the health board decided to align their order with his. The board chose to recommend grocery and convenience stores do what they could to limit the number of patrons in the store, practice social distancing and heightened cleaning protocols, but not mandate them at this time. People still need to eat, and those stores are not sources of community congregation like restaurants, bars and other social establishments, Evans said.

Residents should expect the situation to last a while, as CDC infectious disease officials expect the situation to last weeks, she added.

Bullock has not yet issued any orders regarding statewide or local elections.

Call first

The county courthouse is closed to walk-in traffic, though residents are allowed in on an appointment basis (see county telephone contacts sidebar). The city of Dillon is operating in similar fashion. Several businesses in town, such as banks, have closed lobbies but continue to have services online or by telephone. All recommend calling before dropping by, as the situation changes frequently.

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Declaration allows for preparation, quick response