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Different counties mean different directives for dealing with COVID-19

Phase 2 of the Reopening of the Big Sky Plan launched on June 1, and Governor Bullock's directive regarding face coverings in indoor public spaces and some outdoor events went into effect July 15.

Under Montana Code Annotated 50-2-124, county health departments have responsibility for enforcing these directives as well as the ability to issue their own orders and guidance to support public health. Over the course of the last two months, county health departments have created widely differing plans for communities to follow.

In accordance with the new phase, Lewis and Clark Public Health issued guidance requiring events with expected attendance of over 50 people to submit a plan to Public Health for approval to hold the event. Locally, this guidance affected Fourth of July events and a variety of other Lincoln summer events, such as the Flea Market and Trails Rendezvous.

Bullock's Phase 2 reopening guidance says to "avoid gathering in groups of more than 50 people in circumstances that do not readily allow for appropriate physical distancing," and suggests canceling gatherings of more than 50 people if physical distancing can't be maintained.

As diagnosed COVID-19 cases climbed across the state, LCPH revised its guidance and issued a public health order that went into effect on July 8, limiting all gatherings in Lewis and Clark County to fewer than 250 people. Events with 50-249 people must submit a plan to LCPH, "outlining protective measures and environmental controls to reduce the risk of disease transmission," according to a press release.

This order allows for enforcement under Montana Code Annotated 50-2-124. Using a complaint driven process, law enforcement can document violations and submit them to the county attorney for enforcement, which can include a misdemeanor charge issued to event organizers for each attendee at the event.

In nearby Cascade County, the City-County Health Department issued guidance requiring an event packet to be filled out for all events with more than 100 attendees, as of July 10.

In Powell County, there were no diagnosed cases of COVID-19 as of July 26.

While the county website doesn't provide any guidance regarding events, it does prominently display a COVID-19 Directives Violation Complaint Form that can be submitted to the Powell County Sheriff.

Face coverings are not currently required in Powell County, which is one of 32 Montana counties with fewer than four active cases and one of only six counties with no diagnosed cases. They are required in both Cascade County (with 71 active cases as of July 26) and Lewis and Clark County (with 73 active cases on July 26).

Lack of cases has not mitigated the effect of COVID-19 on the Powell County Health Department, however. Following a July 6 meeting to update Powell County commissioners, county public health officer Lori Drumm announced her resignation in relation to COVID-19 concerns.

Drumm spoke about her upcoming resignation, effective Aug 1, in an interview with Montana Public Radio, saying she is resigning in response to protesters who blocked the entrance to the Deer Lodge Medical Center. The July 6 confrontation came after the announcement of the cancelation of the Tri-County Fair, including the rodeo.

"This really upset our screening process. And we have a secretary up front to ask people not to block the door, several times, I understand, because patients were trying to come in," Drumm said in the interview. "They actually came to my place of business and disrupted a hospital setting."

The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services has also issued some notices and emergency rule notices in relation to COVID-19, which are applicable statewide.

The most recent of these is Montana Administrative Register notice 37-924, which requires strict testing and physical distancing for assisted living facilities that want to provide visitation.

The notice states, "As of the date of this filing, there have been 82 cases in residents and 61 cases in staff of these facilities. These cases have led to 16 deaths. Enforcement of this emergency rule began on July 13.

The issue gained prominence recently due to the spread of COVID-19 at the Canyon Creek Memory Care facility in Billings. As of July 23, 43 of the facility's 45 residents tested positive for coronavirus, and 15 have passed away.


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