BILLINGS- A press conference held by Governor Steve Bullock and Yellowstone County Health Office, John Felton, Thursday in Billings focused on how they plan on cracking down on businesses that are not following state and local COVID-19 mandates.
On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, state public health officials took a close look at many businesses in Flathead County to ensure everyone is doing their part to slow the virus through common-sense mitigation efforts that are in place across the state Bullock said.
Observational site visits were conducted by the team at various businesses in and near Big Fork, Columbia Falls, Kalispell and White Fish including gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, bars, markets, retail stores and grocery stores.
Bullock says many businesses were found to be doing well in helping keep their customers and workforces safe and healthy, some had minor issues but a majority of customers were wearing masks, and others that had prior complaints filed were not keeping customers and staff safe.
“Employees and customers were not wearing masks or following other public health measures that are helping prevent the spread,” Bullock said. “These businesses are putting people at significant risk.”
The state health department will be bringing enforcement actions against the places public health officials saw actions that put others at risk Bullock said, adding that these are places the most egregious of cases with previous complaints reported and documented as repeat offenders.
“The goal here is to make sure that businesses are following the measures we need to keep folks safe,” Bullock said. “If businesses come into compliance we’ll gladly drop the enforcement.”
Bullock says they are working with other counties on enforcement actions as well.
Starting Thursday, people can submit concerns about businesses and events that are not complying with directives intended to protect everyone on the Department of Health and Human Services website.
Submissions will be reviewed by DPHHS and then sent to the appropriate local authority for review and investigation.
Information received will be added to an existing database that is used to track other consumer health and safety complaints which Bullock says will allow the state to track cases with numerous complaints and to follow up on the most egregious reports.
“Just one person with COVID-19 in the wrong place at the wrong time can spoil the whole bunch,” Bullock said. “... Just one business not complying with public health measures puts an increased risk on everyone else who is doing their due diligence to be safe and keep others safe.”
Health Officer John Felton says since October, the Yellowstone County Health Department has received 176 complaints and has received over 1,300 complaints since the beginning of the pandemic in March. Complaints sent to the health department are forwarded to the county attorney office who does the follow-up and investigation according to Felton.
“Everyone needs to comply with our COVID-19 prevention directives for them to be effective,” Felton said. “When individuals, businesses and organizations fail to follow these directives to at tee, they increase the risk of spreading this disease.”
Felton announced that after working with the Governor’s Office, they have created a plan to hire four people to temporary jobs as COVID Education Liaisons.
The liaisons would need to understand Montana law on confidentiality and investigation, Felton saying candidates with law enforcement experience would be preferred.
Liaisons would work in pairs contacting complaints received of businesses, individuals or organizations, and if a complaint is not validated no further action would be taken.
If they do validate a complaint, Felton says the subject in violation would receive education about compliance, expectations and guidance on how to demonstrate compliance. They will also be informed that an unannounced follow-up visit will happen.
If a second visit validates the complaints again, evidence gathered by liaisons will be turned over to the county attorney’s office and to the county health officer.
“We see serious need for this stepped-up response to complaints in Yellowstone County as we try to slow down the surge of COVID-19 cases,” Felton said.