The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is taking enforcement action against five Flathead County businesses that officials deemed “egregious violators” of the state’s COVID-19 health directives, Gov. Steve Bullock announced on a press call Thursday.
State officials are seeking temporary restraining orders against the businesses that inspectors determined were violating the public health measures. If granted, the restraining orders would force temporary closures at the establishments, Bullock said.
The enforcement actions were announced Thursday following an investigation that concentrated solely on Flathead County, which Bullock has previously singled out for its failure to comply with his directives.
The violations included repeated failure by employees and patrons to wear face coverings, social distance and comply with other public health measures set in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to a DPHHS spokesperson.
Following a large volume of complaints in Flathead County, Bullock directed DPHHS officials to investigate whether businesses were complying with the statewide directives. The governor said the investigations were conducted to “ensure that we’re doing our part to slow the virus through the common sense mitigation efforts that are in place across our state.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, teams of investigators conducted site visits at more than a dozen businesses in and around Bigfork, Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kalispell. The businesses visited included gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, bars, markets, retail stores and grocery stores.
Bullock said while many businesses were doing well and keeping customers and their workforces safe, “other businesses, who complaints had been filed about even before this week, are just not keeping their customers and staff safe.”
“These businesses are putting people at significant risk,” Bullock said. “At locations where public health officials witnessed actions that put other people at risk, the state health department will be bringing enforcement actions against them.”
Five of the “most egregious” cases involved businesses with documented complaints that state officials identified as repeat offenders. Those businesses will be subject to temporary restraining orders that DPHHS attorneys planned to file in Flathead County District Court. However, no filings had been made as of 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon.
“The goal here is to make sure businesses are following the measures we need to keep folks safe,” Bullock said. “We expect that afterwards, most businesses will come into compliance and we will immediately seek to remove the temporary restraining orders.”
Bullock singled out Flathead County early in his press conference as an area of “significant concern” in the state, pointing to the 1,700 cases the county has reported in the month, including 503 cases in the most recent reporting week.
According to the state database, Flathead county currently has 801 active cases, the second most in the state behind Yellowstone county.
On Thursday, DPHHS launched a consumer complaint form on its website for citizens to file potential violations of COVID-19 directives or other public health and safety regulations. Submitted concerns will be tracked in a state database, reviewed by DPHHS and, if necessary, sent to the appropriate local authority for further review and investigation.
This is a developing story and will be updated.