Yellowstone County’s health officer announced increased restrictions Monday after the county eclipsed the benchmark of 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in a week.
Oct. 5, Yellowstone County Public Health Officer John Felton said he would issue restrictions immediately if the benchmark was reached.
By the end of Saturday, the number of cases exceeded the limit by 20%, with the average daily rate of COVID-19 cases for the past week being 61.7 per 100,000 people in the county, Felton said during a press conference Monday.
The following restrictions go into effect at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14:
• Restaurants, bars and other establishments that serve food and alcohol must close inside service by 12:30 a.m. Drive-thrus and food delivery services may operate past this time.
• Places of worship will be capped at 50% of regular capacity.
• There will be no adjustment at this time to restaurant, bar and casino capacity from Gov. Steve Bullock's directive reducing capacity to 75%.
• Public and private gatherings will be limited to 25 people, regardless of ability to physically distance.
The group size limitation does not affect people voting in person in the general election, nor does it affect child care facilities or schools.
Felton encouraged residents to limit the duration of close interactions of six feet or less to 15 minutes and to limit social interactions with non-household members to no more than six people per week.
“I know we’re all tired of the pandemic and we want to get our own lives back, but that simply is not possible right now,” Felton said. “We must continue to take measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community, throughout our state and throughout our region.
The restrictions will be re-evaluated in four weeks, and if the number of cases continues to exceed 40 per 100,000 people, Felton said he may have to issue another order.
School districts may impose their own restrictions, so the county restrictions do not apply to schools, Felton said.
Felton said when he set the 565 case benchmark, the number was “unimaginably high.”
“Yet we have eclipsed that mark the very week that we set it,” Felton said. “I do not take issuing this order lightly.”
In the first 10 days of October, there were 5,244 new cases statewide and 886 in Yellowstone County. Montana has an infection rate of 48.5 per 100,000, and is the the third highest infection rate in the nation, Felton said. Yellowstone County is one of the top 20 metro areas in the country for infection rate, ranking 18th.
The high number of cases is straining hospitals, public health staff and businesses, Felton said.
A medical technical team made up of local experts provides guidance through the Unified Health Command, which is made up of RiverStone Health, Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services.
The UHC supports the measures imposed by RiverStone Health, said Nancy Iversen, director of patient safety and infection control at Billings Clinic and a member of UHC.
“The people who take care of patients are showing inspiring determination and resilience,” Iversen said. “They’ll be here for you, but they are not without limits, and they need your help.”
Both Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare are finding ways to increase capacity, like reducing the number of elective surgeries being done at both hospitals, according to St. Vincent Healthcare chief medical officer Dr. Mike Bush.
When asked if assembling the mobile medical facility at MetraPark was being considered, Bush said that things like staffing and supplying the facility could be a challenge.
“So far, we believe we still have the capacity within Yellowstone County to increase what we’re doing in the hospitals — take some steps in the hospital without having to stand up a completely separate facility that would bring its own challenges with it,” Bush said.
And Felton acknowledged that capacity restrictions are hard on local businesses, too.
Reducing restaurant capacity from 75% capacity would be devastating, according to Sean Graves, owner of the Montana Brewing Co. and The Vig in Billings during a virtual meeting hosted by Billings Chamber of Commerce last Thursday.
Graves said that his restaurants have run out of federal aid, and he’s worried about his workers making it on unemployment if staff has to be reduced.
Felton encouraged employees Monday to work from home when possible.
“We can’t afford to go backwards. There’s no programs left. We’re running out of time and we’re running out of money,” Graves said. “And I know right now, there’s going to be a lot of restaurants that won’t make it to the end of the year at the 75% (capacity restriction), so if we go down to 50, if we go down to 25, they’re not going to make it.”
The Yellowstone County Economic Response & Recovery Team supports the restrictions as well, according to a press release from the organization, which is made up of local business leaders like the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
The team encourages residents to support establishments that follow public health orders. Businesses should encourage employees to work from home and stay home when sick, and to mask up and socially distance.
“Public health and economic health go hand in hand, and together we can keep our businesses open, protect our workforce and prevent our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed," said Steve Arveschoug, team leader of the organization, in the release.
RiverStone Health and the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office continue to receive complaints daily about health order noncompliance.
School District 2 in Billings is still allowing two fans per athlete to attend home and visiting teams, but will continue to bar other fans and students in the stands.
A few weeks ago, students congregated outside of Daylis Stadium to watch a game between Senior and West high schools. Billings SD2 Superintendent Greg Upham said that students are no longer allowed to gather in Pioneer Park and outside the stadium.
“As crowds grew, we surely didn’t want an unsafe, unsupervised environment,” Upham said.
On Monday, 423 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the state, bringing the total of active cases to 7,432, the highest it’s been since the state recorded its first case in March.
Felton reiterated the importance of residents following public health guidance to slow the spread of the virus. Individuals should socially distance from others, wash their hands, wear masks in public places, avoid group gatherings, and stay home if they feel sick.
This story has been corrected to reflect bars, restaurants and casinos remain capped at 75% capacity. An earlier version reported capacity would be reduced further.