Health officials and business owners made an urgent plea Thursday in Billings for people to do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Yellowstone County.
The Billings Chamber held a virtual town hall via Zoom to discuss steps that they say must be taken now to ensure the health of both people and businesses.
The chamber is also urging businesses to take a pledge to allow as many people to work from home as possible while the pandemic threatens stricter restrictions on capacity limits for businesses and fills up local hospitals with COVID patients.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said earlier this week that he would order capacity for restaurants and bars to be limited to 25% if new cases in Yellowstone County rise to 40 per 100,000 residents by the last week of October. On Thursday, he announced a change in that possible order to 50% if it happens.
As of Thursday, the one-week average was 41 new cases per 100,000, according to RiverStone Health.
Still, Sean Graves, co-owner of Montana Brewing Co., says it would be devastating not just to restaurants and bars, but their suppliers as well.
“If we are not in business, they are out of business as well. So we really have got to do our part to keep things together because we can’t afford to go backward. There are no programs left. We've run out of time, run out of money. And I know right now, there's going to be a lot of restaurants that are not going to make it to the end of the year under the 75%, so if we go down to 50 we go down to 25, they are not going to make it,” said Graves.
Dr. Scott Ellner, the CEO for Billings Clinic, offered a sobering assessment of the situation, saying that healthcare workers are becoming both stressed and scared and urged the community to take precautions.
“I think until you've had a loved one family member friend or you go through this you don't realize how bad it is. It's about as serious, if not worse, as what we saw with the HIV crisis back in the '80s. And people just don't know how to react. People are scared. Health workers are scared. They are worried that they may contract the virus," said Ellner.
Ellner says hospital officials are expecting 150-200 more hospitalizations in the next two to four weeks if infections continue at the same rate. Yellowstone County hospitals are currently at 90 percent capacity.
They've even ordered what's known as a reefer truck-- that's a refrigerated truck where bodies are stored.