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Yellowstone County Caps Groups At 25 To Limit Coronavirus Spread

The marque at the Babcock Theater in Billings reads "Wash Your Hands, We Will Be Back."
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Babcock Theater in Billings, pictured Mar. 23, 2020 during a statewide stay-home order issued by Gov. Steve Bullock in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Yellowstone County ranks 14 out of the top 20 metro areas in the country for the highest infection rates of coronavirus per 100,000 people, according to COVID Act Now. To slow the spread of COVID-19 and lessen the strain on hospitals, the county health officer will implement new restrictions starting Wednesday.

Group gatherings in Yellowstone County will be limited to 25 people, regardless of whether they can maintain physical distancing or be outside. Exceptions include schools, child care facilities, in-person voting and cafeterias for schools, hospitals and care facilities, crisis shelters and airport concessionaires.

The new Yellowstone County health order will also limit houses of worship to 50 percent capacity.

Health officer John Felton said church populations tend to be older and more at risk.

“As I said last week, we cannot keep up with the increasing volume of COVID-19 cases. This morning, Riverstone Health has a backlog of 300 positive cases that have not been assigned to contact tracers. Positive tests from the state lab are now taking 72 hours or longer to be reported because of the volume," Felton said at a press conference announcing the health order Monday.

The new health order will be in effect Wednesday at 8 A.M. through at least Nov. 9.

Yellowstone County Economic Response and Recovery Team issued a statement offering its full support for the order and asking all businesses to comply.

Felton established two coronavirus case count thresholds last Monday that, if surpassed, would trigger new restrictions. Yellowstone County went over the higher threshold of 50 new cases per 100,000 people on Friday.

Felton said last week the new health order would require bars, restaurants, casinos and places of worship in Yellowstone County to all drop to 25 percent capacity. Under the current directive from the Governor’s Office, capacity is limited to 75 percent.

When asked why he didn’t implement this restriction, Felton said the increase happened so rapidly that the community didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate that it could lower the case counts through actions like masking up and limiting close contacts.

“Although you see much in the literature about reducing to 25 percent, for many of our businesses, that would be catastrophic,” Felton said this week.

The Flathead City County Health Department is also recommending the board of health Thursday authorize stricter restrictions if daily case counts average 50 per 100,000 a week by the end of October. The county surpassed that threshold in recent weeks.

Group gatherings would be limited to no more than 25 people, and restaurants, bars and houses of worship would be reduced to 25 percent capacity. Any business that sells alcohol would be required to close at 10 pm.

Over 2,000 Flathead County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Half of those cases are currently active.

Outbreaks in Flathead County have been linked to several large events, including four weddings, two trade shows and three political events.

Twenty-three people in the county have died. In comparison, a total of 19 people in the last four years died from influenza in Flathead County according to the public health department.

The most recent state data shows inpatient hospital beds in Flathead County are full, and public health officials say the surge of cases strains contact tracing and hospital capacity.