The Gallatin City-County Health Board is scheduled to meet Wednesday to review the county’s face mask mandate and other COVID-19 related regulations guiding operations at restaurants, bars and other businesses.
Due to a change in state law limiting powers of local health officials and a separate bill expected to be signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, the board on Wednesday will be only be discussing the measures rather than directly approving any changes or extensions to the guidelines.
House Bill 121, which passed along party lines in the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in early April, requires elected officials to vote on measures put in place by a local health officer or board of health.
It also gives the local “governing body” the authority to amend a directive or order from a board of health or health officer during an emergency or disaster.
County Health Officer Matt Kelley said last week that the bill’s ambiguous language regarding how the term “governing body” applies to the board is a concern — Bozeman and Gallatin County have a joint city-county board of health created through an interlocal agreement between the two.
Both the city and county have representation on the board and appointment powers, but Kelley said the bill doesn’t make clear how to deal with a board associated with two different governing bodies.
In the meantime, neither the city nor the county commissions have meetings on the books yet to review the health board discussions.
Melody Mileur, spokesperson for the city, said a decision on a meeting will likely be made after Wednesday’s meeting. Whitney Bermes, spokesperson for the county, said the county is still working to determine next steps under the new law.
The health board voted to extend both the reopening guidelines and the mask mandate in early April, though they amended the reopening guidelines for businesses to allow for increased table capacity and decreased distances between bar seating. The reopening guidelines are set to expire May 10 and the mask mandate at the end of the month.
Wednesday’s agenda includes an item calling for replacing the reopening guidelines for businesses with a measure titled the “COVID-19 Mitigation Requirements and Recommendations,” which does not include capacity limits but does require bars, restaurants and other businesses to “operate in a manner that allows patrons adequate space (usually at least 6 feet) for social distancing,” among other measures.
The health board also plans to vote Wednesday whether to recommend the two commissions adopt the Gallatin City-County Health Code, which includes regulations for wastewater treatment systems, food establishment licensing and inspections and other measures.
Wednesday’s health board agenda also includes a measure on appointing an interim health officer in June should a full-time officer not have been hired yet and scheduled discussion time on the health officer recruitment process.
Kelley announced in March he plans to leave the position in June.
The new law will also come up in the coming weeks as the board searches for a new health officer, as the law also changes the power of health boards from being able to appoint local health officers to only being able to recommend candidates to a governing body.
A separate bill passed by the Legislature but yet to be signed by Gianforte could affect the impact of the health board’s guidance. House Bill 257 would limit the ability of local governments or health officials to require businesses follow closure orders, capacity limits or mask mandates.
“Lawmakers in Helena seem to have taken away local control for these decisions,” Kelley said in a news release Monday. “Our current assessment is that local communities lost this control and that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to adopt or enforce local rules designed to slow disease transmission.”
Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the actions the board can take on Wednesday.