Lewis and Clark County adopted a modified version of Gov. Steve Bullock’s guidelines for easing restrictions related to COVID-19, following Bullocks’ April 22 announcement of a three-phased approach to reopening schools and businesses statewide.
Bullocks stay-at-home and school closure directives, issued in mid-March, expired April 24.
“Once we begin to reopen, we want to be able to stay open. Our personal responsibility to protect those around us –particularly those most vulnerable –remains just as important as any time during this pandemic,” Bullock said in the published ‘Reopening the Big Sky” guidelines.
Bullock’s reopening guidance follows a three-phase model, with additional easing of restrictions as the state progresses through the phases. The phases have no set time-frame, but will be gauged based on testing capacity, case monitoring and numbers, contact tracing and hospital capacity.
Lewis and Clark Public Health, which can enact more restrictive guidelines, chose to largely follow the governor’s guidance, following an April 23 meeting of the City-County Board of Health.
“Our residents and businesses should be commended for the sacrifices they made to limit the disease in our county,” County Health Officer Drenda Niemann said in an April 24 press release. “It’s because of their efforts that we’re in a position to meet the governor’s criteria for a limited reopening.”
Lewis and Clark County issued specific guidance last week for activities and businesses.
Though the phase one criteria loosens movement and business restrictions, it remains focused on social distancing, the wearing of masks, good hygiene and the protection of vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with underlying health issues, who are advised to continue to observe the stay-at home-guidance. Gatherings are limited to 10 people if distancing can’t be observed.
Under the governor’s reopening guidance, church services were the first to resume last Sunday, with congregants required to maintain social distancing between groups of non-family members.
“Non-essential” retail businesses that had been closed could re-open Monday, under social distancing, contact tracing and employee health-monitoring guidelines. Most essential businesses have already been implemented someof the requirements, such as six-foot interval markings for people waiting in lines and having hand sanitizer available. County guidance goes further, requiring cloth face coverings for all staff members and social distancing in stores between groups or families that may be patronizing a business together, which may require stricter limits on the number of customers in a business at one time.
For Lincoln, one of the most substantial impacts may be the reopening of bars and restaurants, which can resume operations May 4. Specific county guidance for bars and restaurants hadn’t been posted to their website before press time, but social distancing, reduced building capacity and 11:30 p.m. closure is required.
Though motels and hotels weren’t technically closed under the stay-at-home directive, county guidelines show they must also meet guidelines as retail businesses regarding masks, social distancing and routine cleaning of surfaces touched by customers. Additionally, they must notify guest of the 14-day quarantine requirement that remains in effect for people entering or returning to the state.
Theaters, concert halls and other places of assembly are slated to remain closed, as are gyms, pools and hot tubs.
One notabl departure from the governor’s guidance, which underscores the county’s public health authority, involves public and private campgrounds. Lewis and Clark Public Health ordered the facilities in the county to close April 15 through May 31.
Locally, it affects private camping at the Sleepy Hollow and Spring Creek RV parks and campgrounds, which can stay open for residential or sheltering purposes, and public camping at Hooper Park.
“I think its overkill,” said Susie Gehring, owner of Spring Creek. Although she has several long-term guests sheltering in place, she’s had to defer reservations in hopes the county will rescind the order soon. “It seems to me it was a johnny-come-lately deal for campgrounds.”
At the time of the order, Gayle Shirley, Lewis and Clark Public Health communications manager, told the BVD they believed camping in campgrounds violated the governor’s stay-at-home order. She said they’re not aware of any other counties in the state that have issued similar orders, but cited the US Forest Service, BLM and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks decisions to close campgrounds as high-risk environment for disease transmission.
According to the county’s April 24 press release, Niemann will reconsider the campground order depending on the status of other campgrounds, such as those managed by the Forest Service and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Overnight camping is set to resume at state campgrounds May 1, with reduced amenities and strict social distancing requirements. The Forest Service and BLM have not yet announced changes to their campground closures.
“We encourage businesses to develop a written plan to guide them as they make sure they offer a safe environment to customers and employees,” Niemann said. “That can really serve as a roadmap when issues come up, which they most likely will.
She said businesses don’t have to open if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Just because you’re allowed to open doesn’t mean you have to,” she said. “Choosing not to reopen in an effort to limit community risk is a good public-health-based decision.”
Lewis and Clark Public Health guidance can be found at http://www.lccountymt.gov/health/disease-control/covid-19-main-page.html.