HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock announced Tuesday he would provide resources to local counties to increase enforcement of coronavirus related restrictions, including a statewide mask mandate, as Montana experiences one of the largest COVID-19 case outbreaks in the nation.
According to a White House Coronavirus Task Force report on Montana dated Oct. 11, Montana had the third-highest rate of new cases per capita last week and the second-highest test positivity rate in the country, at 10.1%.
Montana had 332 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week, compared with the national average of 100 per 100,000, according to the report.
Bullock said enforcement of existing statewide mandates, including a mask requirement implemented in July, has been lacking. The governor said he would provide education resources and coronavirus relief funds to county health departments and attorneys to investigate health-order violations and pursue legal action against businesses that do not comply with restrictions.
The governor said most compliance issues are resolved through an informal phone call by the local health department, but some issues have required additional action to create “a community deterrent.”
“If drivers know that there are no officers on patrol, they can certainly speed with impunity,” Bullock said. “Public health officials find themselves helpless to combat the virus if they don't receive the support that Montana law guarantees them.”
“Among large counties, those that have taken civil enforcement action against some of the most egregious bad actors currently experience much lower rates of transmission,” Bullock said.
Bullock named Missoula, Lewis and Clark and Silver Bow as counties that have successfully pursued legal action to ensure compliance with health mandates.
In Missoula, two businesses were recently served with orders for mandatory use of face coverings by the county health officer, the Missoulian reported.
According to the White House Task Force report, smaller, more intimate gatherings of family, friends and neighbors and driving transmission in the state. Jim Murphy, the state's chief epidemiologist, said social events, including in bars, have been associated with transmission of the virus.
In Yellowstone County, county commissioners canceled all events planned at MetraPark, a public events center, were canceled through Nov. 9, the Billings Gazette reported. The decision came a day after the local health officer issued an order limiting gatherings to 25 individuals.
Montana reported 520 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the state’s total case tally to more than 19,600. The numbers are believed to be far higher because not everyone has been tested, and people can have coronavirus without showing symptoms.
More than 7,700 people are considered to still have COVID-19, meaning they are under quarantine or isolation orders. Nearly 300 people are hospitalized, and 217 people have died.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
In other news related to the coronavirus, the Montana High School Association has delayed the start of the winter sports season by nearly three weeks to allow for the state’s COVID-19 case count to subside. Practices for winter sports will begin Dec. 7, instead of the originally scheduled Nov. 19 start date. Games are set to begin Jan. 4, instead of the first week in December.