Indoor and outdoor events get a little more freedom

Gallatin City-County Board of Health loosens COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings

Covid-19 related group gathering restrictions have been loosened. The Gallatin City-County Board of Health unanimously approved a motion to amend a public health rule pertaining to COVID-19 during a special meeting on March 12. The motion was made by board member Christopher Coburn and seconded by board member I-Ho Pomeroy.

Among other things, the amended rule will increase limits on gatherings for indoor events from 25 to 150 people and allow outdoor events to increase from 25 to 250 people – if proper physical distancing measures are in place to protect the public.

The meeting lasted over two hours and the board voted after public comment as well as discussion with Health Officer Matt Kelley. Extensive data was presented, and board member Steve Custer stated that the data is what decided his vote.

March 13 marked the 1-year anniversary of the first cases seen in the state, ones of those being in Gallatin County, shortly before the area became the “epicenter of the outbreak in the state.”

2020 marked the first year in decades that deaths in Montana exceeded births. Covid-19 will rank as the third leading cause of death for 2020. By comparison, Kelley noted, Montana has roughly 220 highway deaths a year.

There are promising aspects of the epidemiology that Kelley hopes will help the county continue reopening in the weeks ahead. Hospitalizations remain low over the last week and the percent positive, number of deaths, and the number of cases that result from a positive case have dropped off. Also numbers are down in long term care facilities.

Covid cases are “continuing to trend – little by little – downward,” he said.

“We continue to watch the data: as things close down, as things open up, every decision along the way – let’s continue to do that,” said Board Chair Becky Franks.

Board members voiced their support of the amendment, noting it is a meaningful as well as careful way to protect the community while opening things up.

After the vote, Commissioner Joe Skinner said that if asymptomatic cases, unreported cases and positive cases were added with those individuals who are vaccinated, it could mean that the community is already approaching herd immunity. He then moved that during the March 25 meeting the board consider “a resolution that would rescind all local Gallatin County emergency rules related to Covid-19 and revert to state directives.” He said people in the county are asking for the board to at least have the conversation.

His motion was seconded for discussion.

Board member Dr. Seth Walk provided his thoughts.

“As the vaccinations get rolled out as more people experience natural infection and recover, the 70% [vaccinated] goal is great, but we really don’t know what natural immunity looks like in our population. That’s why the numbers are so important, and the numbers are trending in the right direction,” he said.

He pointed out he is a scientist and not a public health expert, but that the board should be able to establish a set of criteria for reopening – and that conversation is merited.

Dr. Steve Custer agreed that a discussion is important, but not now: “I think the time to discuss it is when the data supports that it is the time to seriously consider removing the restrictions. I don’t currently see that that evidence is present today.”

Coburn noted that he found the conversation “irresponsible” when Gallatin County maintains one of the highest numbers of cases in the state.

“For me, it feels really challenging from a public health perspective to be in total alignment with the state when those policies at the state level are not really conducive or supportive to public health. Our duty as a board is to protect the health and wellbeing of our county,” he said.

Board member Mari Eggers said the discussion should not be about complete dismissal but rather “‘What are the metrics at which we can relax the mask mandate? What data would we need to see?’ We need to make that decision first as to what our standard is going to be,” she said, noting the case numbers are still high and the variants are now in Montana.

Kelley believes it is important for the community and the board to have the conversation and said the board of health is open to the community’s ideas. He did suggest a little more time for staff to prepare and for the board to consider Skinner’s motion. Board discussion will be needed for several board of health rules that are set to expire in April.

Skinner amended his motion to allow more time for consideration and also for the board to consider rescinding the rules individually.

The board voted unanimously in favor of his motion.

“It’s a healthy conversation to have,” Kelley said.

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