Gov. issues statewide mask mandate

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Beaverhead County added more than 120 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, joining an explosion of cases statewide.

The growth in new cases and deaths statewide the past few weeks prompted Gov. Steve Bullock to institute a statewide mask mandate – regardless of active case counts – starting Friday, Nov. 20.

Bullock will require restaurants, bars and casinos to reduce capacity to 50 percent, and abide by a 10 p.m. curfew beginning Friday. Tables at these businesses will be limited to six people maximum per table, with each table at least six feet apart from other tables. Breweries and distilleries will also need to operate at half capacity, and follow existing statewide requirements for closing time.

All public gatherings will be limited to 25 people where it is not possible to ensure social distancing, or wherever distancing is not being practiced, he said.

Bullock said these restrictions are similar to what is already in place in Missoula, Bozeman and other counties hard-hit by the virus. Bullock noted statewide hospital facilities are facing staffing and supply shortages as a result.

The actual outbreak size and scope is not completely clear, as state databases are well behind local reporting of new cases and deaths.

As of Tuesday, Beaverhead County had 120 active cases and 479 total according to the state of Montana website. That is four cases fewer than what Beaverhead County Public Health posted Saturday on Facebook. The county’s third death just listed on the Montana Department of Health (DPHHS) demographics site Tuesday, 11 days after it was reported by local public health officials.

The state added 8,247 new cases and 81 deaths in the past week. Montana had 49,398 total positive cases and 543 deaths as of Tuesday; it passed 500 deaths on Saturday. The state added over 1,000 cases multiple times this week, hitting a daily record of 1,600 new positives reported Saturday.

Public Health Director Sue Hansen said all counties are behind in getting data to the state.

“We can say that our numbers have been increasing in the last couple of weeks, from about 6-7 new cases per day to double or triple on some days,” public health officials wrote on Facebook. Officials wrote a DPHHS database update contributed to the data backlog, and it may take days for numbers to get caught up.

According to state data, Beaverhead saw a 58-case daily increase posted Friday, a 29-case increase Saturday, and a 30-case increase Tuesday. The majority of cases added this week are from residents in their 20s, followed by those in their 30s, and then teens. All age groups added new cases this week except for those aged 90 or older.

Beaverhead’s new cases are coming from close contacts – particularly family members – but mostly from community spread, Hansen said. The new cases are “pretty much everywhere” in the county, she said, not just in the city of Dillon.

Two Beaverhead County High School students tested positive Thursday, and one staff member Friday, according to BCHS Superintendent Gary Haverfield. Staff and students were in contact with all three during the period of possible exposure, he added.

University of Montana Western’s positive COVID cases continue to increase, Chancellor Beth Weatherby indicated in a COVID update on the schools’ website. She did not give specific case counts for the school.

The weekly school data report tallied 84 total cases at the university since classes began in August. The data was for cases reported through Nov. 12. BCHS listed eight students positive; Dillon Middle School had four student cases; and Parkview Elementary had two student cases listed in that report.

Healthcare professionals discussed the local situation Thursday at a community COVID conversation (see related story). Barrett Hospital and Healthcare Chief Medical Officer and Emergency Department Medical Director Dr. Greg Moore indicated half of the COVID tests performed are coming up positive, an alarming rate of positivity. Dr. Peter Pappas, an infectious disease expert from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, indicated that is the highest positivity rate he has seen so far, though he indicated it may be due to only testing symptomatic individuals.

Additional Montana coronavirus relief dollars will be available to statewide businesses impacted by COVID-19, with a provision they need to abide by the masking and capacity requirements outlined, Bullock said.

The state’s case climb mirrors a national trend. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported daily records for new cases and deaths multiple times over the past week. As of Tuesday, there were more than 11.1 million positive COVID-19 cases and over 246,200 deaths nationwide.