On Jan. 13, Gov. Greg Gianforte began lifting statewide COVID-19 restrictions on local businesses. He eliminated limits on operating hours, which will mostly affect restaurants and bars. This means, as long as your municipality hasn’t instituted more stringent rules, you can once again go clubbing until 2 a.m.
Gianforte also removed indoor capacity restrictions, which will also impact the service industry. This means — again, as long as your city or county hasn’t passed its own regulations — you can pack in as many people as you want anywhere you want. The governor did say, “any public gatherings or events should be managed in a way that accommodates CDC social distancing guidelines.” Still, expect the clubs in parts of the state to begin looking decidedly unpandemic-like.
Meanwhile, the mask mandate, perhaps the most divisive of all the directives, remains in effect. For now. Once more vaccines are distributed to the most vulnerable in our population, Gianforte has made it clear he will terminate the directive.
Here are my thoughts: While my mother always told me nothing good happens after midnight, restricting hours of operations at already struggling bars and restaurants that were otherwise following the rules seemed arbitrary. On the other hand, allowing revelers to gather shoulder to shoulder without any volume restrictions may be a bit premature.
I don’t envy the newly minted Republican governor, who has to navigate a population increasingly diverging into two camps — those who want strict rules to remain in place until more people are inoculated and those who are decidedly over following any rules, some of which were implemented nearly a year ago.
Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would close the northern border until at least Feb. 21. It’s already been shut to vehicle travel since March. That was the same month former Gov. Steve Bullock issued a mandatory stay-at-home order and it was still unclear whether the 2020 Summer Olympics would proceed as planned. Little did we know that, in fact, just about everything would be canceled until scientists could concoct a vaccine. Now we have one, but the rollout has been shaky at best.
What’s most concerning about lifting restrictions is the potential for a spike in cases across the state after the number of positives and, more importantly, active hospitalizations have fallen precipitously in recent weeks. Bullock largely attributed the declines to his restrictions put in place in November, the same ones Gianforte is rescinding.
The governor allowing municipalities to maintain their own rules, even if they’re more arduous than the state’s, could prevent another widespread increase in cases. Already, Missoula, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties have their own orders in place.
There’s just one problem. Our new Attorney General Austin Knudsen is ignoring that part of Gianforte’s directive and wrote a letter to Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert last week ordering him to dismiss the case against a Bozeman bar to enforce a 10 p.m. closing time to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Lambert responded to Knudsen’s “bellicose remarks” by making clear he has no intention of dismissing the lawsuit because the “directive recognized that local health authorities may enact rules or orders more restrictive than the governor’s.”
Let’s hope vaccine distribution improves because, if our elected officials can’t get on the same page, no one will know what the rules are. And the two camps will only diverge further.
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