Governor Rolls Back Some COVID-19 Restrictions

Capacity limits and mandated closing times at bars, restaurants eliminated; mask directive remains in effect

By Andy Viano
Greg Gianforte, then a U.S. congressman, in Kalispell in 2019. Beacon File Photo

Gov. Greg Gianforte is lifting some public health regulations put in place by his predecessor in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including removing capacity limits at bars, restaurants and other businesses, and eliminating a requirement that those businesses close by 10 p.m.

Gianforte made the announcement at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. The rule changes will go into effect Friday morning. In addition to loosening requirements for food and beverage establishments, Gianforte also removed a directive that limited the size of public gatherings to 25 people when social distancing could not be maintained. He did not rescind the state’s mask mandate, which he has pledged to do in a matter of “weeks not months,” once more Montanans are vaccinated and the state Legislature passes a law protecting businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.

Many of Montana’s largest counties have local health orders in place that will supersede these changes, Gianforte said, but Flathead County has so far been unable to get support for any such measures. Former Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson made two attempts to restrict the size of allowable public gatherings last fall — before Gov. Steve Bullock enacted more stringent guidelines in November — but was voted down by the board of health each time. Her successor, Joe Russell, has not attempted to enact any measures since he was hired last month. Russell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gianforte’s new directive goes into effect at 5 a.m. Friday and removes any limitations on restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos. Bullock ordered those businesses to close their doors no later than 10 p.m. and limit capacity to 50% back in November, when record numbers of new COVID-19 infections were reported. In a press release, Gianforte’s office called the previous directives “onerous” and “arbitrary.” Gianforte’s new directive asks that all businesses “make reasonable efforts” to follow best practices regarding social distancing, sanitation and testing.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Gianforte also cheered a continuing decline in new cases throughout the state. Fewer than 200 people are hospitalized statewide as of Jan. 13, less than half as many as during the state’s peak. But Gianforte also cautioned “we’re not out of the woods yet” and urged residents to continue to wear masks in public.

“I look forward to a day when we can all take off our masks, throw them in the trash and get on with our lives in a safe manner,” he said. “Until we get there, I continue to choose to wear a mask and I encourage others to do the same.”

Flathead County reported 28 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday. The county is averaging fewer than 50 new cases per day in January after that number was 119 in November. Sixty Flathead County residents have died as a result of COVID-19.

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Information from The Associated Press is included in this story.