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BILLINGS, Mont.  - Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton announced new restrictions Monday in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the county.

Health officials said last week that a new health order would be issued if the weekly number of cases in the county exceeded 565 by Saturday. On Friday, Oct. 9, the number of reported COVID-19 cases reached 598. 

"At number 18, Yellowstone County is one of the top 20 metro areas in the country for infections rates," Felton said. Yellowstone County now has an infection rate of 61.7 per 100,000 people. Currently, there's 1,487 active cases.

"I'm cognizant that our case rate last week escalated so rapidly that we did not have time for advanced compliance efforts undertaken by citizens and businesses," he said. 

Felton read off grim statistics as he announced the new public health order.

"For this past week, Billings Clinic and St. Vincent were carrying an average of 87 people per day with COVID-19." 

The new health order

The new health order states all restaurants, food courts, cafes, coffee houses, bars, brew pubs, taverns, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, special licensees, clubs and casinos will be required to close for inside business no later than 12:30 a.m. Only drive-through and delivery for food service will be allowed to continue past 12:30 a.m. 

Businesses will still be expected to continue social distancing and mask requirements. 

All physical group gatherings will be limited to no more than 25 people, regardless of location or the ability to socially distance. The restriction applies to both indoor and outdoor events.

Exceptions to the health order

Exceptions to the new restrictions include houses of worship, which will be allowed to host more than 25 people but limited to 50% of the facility's capacity. 

Food services for universities, K-12 schools, hospital and care facilities, hotels, crisis shelters, and airport concessionaires will be allowed to continue operating with only necessary staff.

Local school districts and school boards have the decision-making authority for school-related activities, both academic and extracurricular. Billings Public School Superintendent Greg Upham said, as of this time, there will not be any changes to the district's existing policies. Childcare facilities are exempt from the new order.

The order will not apply to in-person voting on Nov. 3, but social distancing and mask-wearing will still be required.

Additional recommendations for Yellowstone County businesses and residents

Health Officer Felton says employers should encourage and allow employees to work remotely if possible. 

In addition to maintaining social distancing, mask use, and hand hygiene practices, residents are asked to limit their number of close, non-household contacts to no more than six people a week, as well as limiting the time spent with those contacts to less than 15 minutes whenever possible.

Residents are also encouraged to use contact-free services for businesses, including drive-throughs, take-out food services, and contactless delivery when available.

The new health order will go into effect at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14. through Monday, Nov. 9.

Click here to read the entire health officer order.

The Yellowstone County Economic Response and Recovery Team also issued a press release in support of the public health officer's order. You can read that here.

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