Governor put entire weight of mandates on local officials, then walks it back a bit

Thursday, October 15, 2020
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(Photo by the Missoulian) Gov. Steve Bullock

A week ago, Gov. Steve Bullock put the weight of enforcing COVID-19 mandates and directives squarely on the shoulders of local leaders and public health, going as far to say he had no plans to help counties with enforcement issues.

That tone has now changed. And in a big way.

At a Tuesday afternoon press call with reporters, Bullock focused again on local authorities across the state. He began by reciting tighter restrictions that go into effect this week in Yellowstone County that were put in place by county officials. Those restrictions include gatherings of no more than 25 people — regardless of social distancing, indoors or outside. Yellowstone County is currently ranked 18th in the nation in active cases as far as metro areas, with approximately 60 cases for every 100,000 people, said Bullock. That county’s goal is to get to below 40 cases per 100,000.

The Flathead City Council and Hill County is also reaching out for input on placing restrictions in those areas to help tamp down the case counts there, which are both in the triple-digits.

Then Bullock turned to his comments made last week, saying that since that time, he has heard from public health folks and businesses with questions — and frustrations — about getting compliance and enforcement.

As opposed to last week when Bullock said it was local authorities who had set mandates and therefore it was up to them to enforce those, Bullock conceded that he did in fact “set guidelines” and the state would be helping counties with those “guidelines.”

He also acknowledge that public health needs “back up,” and that will come in whatever form is necessary — more staffing for enforcement issues or assistance to county attorney’s offices that need help with legal templates dealing with public health matters.

Montana’s State Medical Officer Dr. Greg Holzman also participated in the press conference and reiterated the job being done by local public health folks.

“These local public health are working like crazy,” said Holzman, adding that some have more support than others.

FACT CHECKING THE GOVERNOR

The following are mandates and directives regarding COVID-19 issued by Bullock since March:

•March 10: Bullock declares a state of emergency.

•March 15: Bullock orders a 2-week closure of all public schools statewide, as well as the lockdown of all nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which remains in place. He also set a limit of 50 people in groups, as well as activated the Montana National Guard.

•March 30: Bullock issues a Shelter-in-Place and the closure of all non-essential businesses.

•May 19: Bullock issues a directive implementing and establishing Phase 2 reopening metrics. This covered increasing group size to 50, bars/restaurants continue to 75 percent of capacity, employer efforts at social distancing, the use of protective equipment, vulnerable people remaining at home and the lifting of the out-of-state travel quarantine. Enforcement of these were specifically addressed in the directive as being a Public Health Order enforceable by “the Attorney General, DPHHS, a county attorney, or other local authorities under the direction of a county attorney.” It further addresses local public health agencies, stating those agencies are to “Assist in Administration of this Public

Health Order.”

-July 15: Bullock issued a directive on the mandatory use of face coverings. Enforcement of this is specified the same as above, with the following added:

“Local public health agencies and law enforcement should focus their enforcement of this Directive on education, providing warnings and education about the risk of transmission, while reserving the imposition of penalties, trespass enforcement, and other formal enforcement mechanisms for only the most egregious, repeat violations that put the public at risk,” according to the directive.

-Aug. 12: Bullock issued a directive on K-12 school mask requirement. Enforcement was addresses as follows:

“This Directive, along with any prior Directive that implements and references the public health authorities of DPHHS provided in Title 50, constitutes a “public health . . . order[]” within the meaning of § 50-1-103(2), MCA, and is enforceable by the Attorney General, DPHHS, a county attorney, or other local authorities under the direction of a county attorney…Local public health agencies are directed to assist in the administration of this Directive, consistent with § 50-1-202(2)(a), MCA. All officers and agencies of the state are directed to assist in the administration and enforcement of this Directive, consistent with § 10-3-305(2), MCA.”

ASKING FOR HELP

Bullock also said last week that he had not received any requests for help from any county regarding the enforcement or implantation issues and said local community leaders needed to be the people addressing such issues.

Stillwater County Commissioner Tyrel Hamilton sent Bullock two email letters asking for some simple communication with local public officials, who wereworking diligently with a Unified Command team, businesses and residents to keep informed.

Hamilton’s first email letter was sent on April 14 and specifically asked “that going forward anytime your office is going to have a press conference announcing additional or changes to existing directives please make us aware of it before the press conference. From my experience, directly following your press conferences we are immediately fielding questions from concerned citizens and business owners wondering how they will be affected at the local level. We then play catch up with our County Attorney and Public Health office to provide them with answers often without the documentations providing useful information about the directive.”

Hamilton’s second email letter to Bullock’s office was sent on April 21 and stated the following:

“I am writing again to express my concern with your communications to your local leaders and public health officers. Your current stay at home order is set to expire on Friday and we are still without direction at the local level as to what a plan could look like as it pertains reopening our state. I have a growing concern that we are going to see businesses both retail and restaurants/bars going against any restrictions or orders passed down from your office. The only hope that our Unified Command feels we have is to get a plan to the businesses as soon as we can. For this to happen effectively local leaders must have the information you intend to announce to the public as soon as possible. We can not build a plan and have it to the businesses in just 2 days.”

Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock also reached out to Bullock’s office for help, telling the Carbon County News that the commissioners have “3 unanswered calls in to his (Bullock’s) office inquiring about assistance, and soon, some of the assistance provided by the state, to Public Health, is going to be recalled to Helena to be distributed at their discretion.”

SHIFT OF TONE

Leading up to last week’s press conference, Bullock repeatedly stressed that rising case numbers were alarming. The previous two weeks had seen cases double, and that was up from a 40 percent increase three weeks ago. Bullock said last week how the spike in cases and community transmission of the virus were endangering the ability for businesses to stay open, as well as straining hospital and public health resources.

“Pandemics don’t go away on their own. And they don’t spread on their own either,” Bullock said last week.