Public health approves local guidelines for gyms, theater reopenings

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Operators of gyms, movie theaters and pools in Beaverhead County are asked to submit reopening plans for their facilities to the health board, it was decided Friday.

The facilities were allowed to reopen Friday, May 15 statewide, provided they could keep people six feet apart, operate with reduced capacity, and step up disinfection and cleaning practices. The city-county public health board approved county restrictions nearly identical to Gov. Steve Bullock’s guidelines, except for the additional request of having written plans for reopening submitted to public health.

The board’s unanimous approval of the guidelines did not pass without argument. As he had in previous county reopening discussions, City of Dillon Mayor Mike Klakken asserted the board of health did not have the authority to make stricter requirements than Bullock’s statewide orders.

Klakken cited Montana code which only allows boards of health to be more strict in requirements if it makes a written finding after a period of public hearing or comment, that is in line with peer-reviewed evidence for that finding.

“It doesn’t say that you can’t (be more strict). It just requires you to do these things – have public comment, research, peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the conclusion, a written finding from this board,” he said. “I do not believe we can enforce this if the governor doesn’t give us the power to enforce.”

County Attorney Jed C. Fitch and University of Montana Western Dean of Students Nicole Hazelbaker reminded Klakken that the governor’s directive does allow local boards to be more strict in their requirements.

Bullock’s directive dated April 22 stated, “As with prior directives, nothing in this directive prohibits local public health authorities from adopting more restrictive approaches based on need.”

Klakken also questioned whether the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studies and guidelines were sufficient for the evidence.

“There are studies coming out now saying what (the CDC) was saying was wrong,” he said.

Former Dillon mayor George Warner agreed, noting he signed the original document establishing the citycounty health department in the first place. That document says the board can create rules but has to follow the process to develop them like any other local public agency. He said he did not believe there were city or county local ordinances or rules established to deal with public health issues.

“If the board determines you want to make your own rules, you have to go through the same process the city or county does, and create those rules,” he said, adding he does believe the board can shut down a gathering or event due to an emerging public health issue, but not preemptively do so without establishing those ordinances.

Klakken and Warner objected to using the word “must” in any local health guidance, with Warner calling them “mandates.”

“If you have infections, you can establish protocols to react to them. But if you don’t, what are you reacting to? You are forcing something that isn’t there, and you don’t have an ordinance that says you can implement that,” Warner said.

Klakken voted to approve the gym, pool and theater local guidelines Friday. Klakken voted against the guidelines for restaurants, bars and distilleries two weeks ago, claiming the board could not instill more strict guidelines than the governor.

Horse events allowed, with limitations

After weeks of seeking answers, local public health officials discovered some horse-related events can take place at the county fairgrounds. Public Health Director Sue Hansen said the state is authorizing on a case-by-case basis events such as barrel racing and roping. The events will be restricted to no concessions and no spectators. Participants can only be Montana residents, parking will be separated by distance, and no one can stay overnight at the event.

Rodeos are not allowed in phase one reopening.

The health board approved allowing these types of events to occur if given approval from the governor’s office.

It is unknown if the county fair will still be held. Both the county fair and livestock sale are scheduled for later this year.

The next public health board meeting is tentatively scheduled for May 29.