County opens its doors, distancing remains in effect

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Morning joe

Callie Triller, Laura Malesich and Kelly Smith (left to right) gather to enjoy the sunshine and a cup of coffee Thursday in the amphitheater at Jaycee Park. All three made sure they were far enough apart to enjoy each other’s company and protect public health under statewide and local coronavirus restrictions. Casey S. Elliott photo

The statewide gradual reopening of businesses led the county commission to officially open the Beaverhead County Courthouse doors Monday.

Unlocked doors aside, residents may want to keep county contact phone numbers handy, as some county employees continue to work from home.

Gov. Steve Bullock started the phased reopening of the state at the end of April, though businesses needed to step up disinfection and cleaning, have employees wear masks, limit capacity, and ensure six feet of distance between parties. Gyms, pools and movie theaters were added to the list of businesses that could open with limits Friday, May 15.

All courthouse offices put in place what they felt was needed to comply with the governor’s and local health officials’ guidelines, to reduce the chances of spreading the coronavirus. The commission delayed unlocking the doors until those departments could obtain the supplies needed.

State and local health officials expect the number of COVID-19 cases to continue to increase, though the restrictions are designed to make it easier to keep any outbreaks minimized. Public Health Director Sue Hansen said Friday the county has tested roughly 2 percent of the residents of the county, with 211 tests performed and five tests pending. More testing will help identify those with COVID-19 faster, to make isolation and quarantine more effective in stopping the spread of the virus. The state is starting to roll out surveillance testing to vulnerable populations, such as those living in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.

In Beaverhead County, most of the restaurants, bars, casinos and distilleries provided written reopening plans to the local public health department, Lanie Jones of the county sanitation department said. Only two businesses either did not return calls or were unable to be certain they could provide the six-foot separation between patrons, Jones said; she did not name the businesses.

The health department asked those businesses, along with gyms, pools and movie theaters, to provide written plans as part of their local reopening guidelines (see related story).

Though Bullock allowed local law enforcement to enforce restrictions, the public health board and local police have indicated they would prefer to educate rather than issue tickets and fines.

The Southwest Montana YMCA had a “soft opening” last week, CEO Todd Rouse said.

“As we welcome members back to the Y, we are working hard to ensure that health and safety remains a top priority,” he said. “We have taken all necessary steps in aquatics and wellness areas to ensure the safety of our members, program participants and staff. This means things will look and feel a little different. But the changes are necessary as we are following CDC and public health guidelines.”

The University of Montana Western’s BARC (Bulldog Athletic Recreation Center) remains closed, UMW Dean of Students Nicole Hazelbaker said.

Virus spread by tourism concerns officials

Travel is one of the main ways the virus made inroads into Montana, and the reopening of Yellowstone National Park has some public health officials worried. The park has open access through the Wyoming gates, though visitors are restricted in what they can do at the park. The Montana entrances to Yellowstone are expected to open June 1, and county officials expect more travelers from out of state flowing through those gates.

Though Beaverhead does not have a Yellowstone access gate, it does see an increase in tourism along Interstate 15 during the summer months. Public Health board members said that is one of their largest worries for potential disease spread at the board’s May 15 meeting.

“Our hospital incident command considers this the biggest threat in the near future,” Barrett Hospital Chief Clinical Officer Carol Kennedy said. The hospital has kept all its temporary walls, cleaning protocols and masks ready in case travelers bring in a surge of cases.

The 14-day travel quarantine remains in effect for out-of-state and non-business travelers, which creates confusion for travelers and officials.

“How do you even enforce that,” County Attorney Jed C. Fitch said, noting the Montana National Guard is only informing travelers of the quarantine at airports and train stations. Many vacationers enter the state by road.

Bullock said in a prior press conference the information is posted on informational signs along highways. Hotels and other places of lodging need to inform patrons of the quarantine and need to post it, Hansen said.

Public health board member Charlotte Quist suggested the county do what it can to expand preventative testing of “frontline” workers who would be exposed to travelers, such as store clerks, grocery and gas station employees. That would allow faster isolation of COVID-19 positive cases to reduce chances of spreading the virus.

As of Tuesday, there were 471 total cases and 16 deaths in Montana from the virus. Cases have been slowly climbing in and around Yellowstone County. That is 10 more cases and zero new deaths than the same time last week.

There were approximately 1.48 million cases and more than 89,400 deaths from the disease nationwide as of Monday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.