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Yellowstone County sees more virus restrictions

by AMY BETH HANSON Associated Press
| November 19, 2020 3:00 PM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The health officer in the state's most populous county is implementing additional restrictions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 because, he said, it's clear the current safeguards aren't doing enough.

"We have tried to rely on individual actions," including social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing and staying home when sick, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said Thursday during a news conference in Billings. "But the reality is that those efforts have failed to hold steady let alone reduce the extent of COVID-19 and its transmission in our community."

The county had nearly 1,100 newly reported cases last week and Felton expects they'll see the same level this week. Based on that caseload, he said, bars and schools should be closed, restaurants should be limited to 25% of normal capacity and Harvard University's Global Health Institute recommends a stay-at-home order.

"We're doing everything we can to avoid going to those most draconian actions, but we need everyone's help to do that," Fulton said.

Beginning Friday in Yellowstone County, all retail venues, bars, restaurants, casinos, gyms, churches, hair and nail salons and bowling alleys must close by 10 p.m. and remain closed until at least 4 a.m.

Bars can only take orders and serve customers who are sitting at physically distanced tables or the bar, Felton said.

All of those facilities must limit occupancy to 50% of normal. Drive-through and food delivery services can continue past 10 p.m.

The order, which extends until the end of the year the 25-person limit on indoor or outdoor gatherings, does not apply to schools and their extracurricular activities, he said.

He also urged county residents to stay home except for essential activities and work remotely if possible.

While two manufacturers have recently announced they have developed promising vaccines against the coronavirus, Felton cautioned residents from counting on that to return to some semblance of normal.

"It is critically important that we do not let our guard down and stop the prevention measures and hope that we'll get lots of vaccine soon," Felton said. "History tells us that in such cases, we are likely to get far less vaccine and far later than we would hope."

Beginning Friday, the state's mask mandate applies to all counties. Bars, restaurants, casinos and breweries must be closed by 10 p.m. under an order Gov. Steve Bullock issued on Tuesday.

"I know that the restrictions imposed by the governor and I are difficult," Felton said. "The breadth of my local order should make clear that we are not trying to pick winners and losers and we're not trying to blame any particular set of businesses or individuals. We are all tired, but we must continue to be vigilant about consistently adhering to prevention measures."

Also Thursday, the Lewis and Clark City-County Board of Health asked Montana legislative leaders to limit coronavirus exposure by holding the 2021 session remotely. If that's not possible, the board advocated for virtual participation by staff, the public and legislators who are at-risk.

For those who do participate in the Capitol, the board advocated strict physical distancing, face coverings and sanitation. The board also asked the legislature for a contact tracing team dedicated to the session because the county health department "does not have the capacity to assist with case investigation and complicated multi-county contact tracing if a member of the legislative body or public tests positive for the virus while participating in the legislative session."

Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt, both Republicans, did not immediately return phone messages Thursday seeking comment.

Very few Republican lawmakers wore masks or practiced physical distancing in caucuses to elect leadership at the Capitol on Wednesday. Many Democratic lawmakers participated via videoconferencing and those who were in the Capitol wore masks.

Montana reported 1,236 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, raising the known total of cases to nearly 52,000 since mid-March. It is likely there are far more cases because not everyone is tested and studies show some people can have COVID-19 without having symptoms.

Just over 480 people were hospitalized Thursday and the state has seen at least 561 deaths, officials reported.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.