Update 6 p.m.- On a day that Montana smashed its single-day record for most Covid cases with 932, Gov. Steve Bullock held a news conference in Billings to talk about measures that can be taken to make sure that more businesses comply with health orders.
Bullock says both state and federal resources are being provided to assist counties that need help enforcing mandates.
“The virus will keep on spreading if there are no protections in place and no accountability to the restrictions that we already have,” said Bullock.
Part of the plan to change that in Yellowstone County, which has the most Covid cases in the state, includes hiring four Covid education liaison officers using CARES Act money to investigate complaints.
County health officer John Felton says there have been hundreds of complaints since the pandemic began. Ideally, he says the liaison officers will have a law enforcement background and be familiar with Montana law.
“If they do validate the complaint, the business, organization, or individual will receive education about compliance expectations and guidance on how to demonstrate compliance. That business, organization, or individual will also be informed that an unannounced follow-up visit will occur. If the second visit validates the complaint again evidence gathered by the liaison will be turned over to the county attorney’s office and to me as county health officer," said Felton.
While the effort is mostly educational, it does also have some teeth if necessary. Felton says those found in violation a second time could face charges from the county attorney and that he also has the power to close a building down.
All of those who spoke at Thursday’s news conference say that most businesses are playing by the rules, but say those who aren’t are putting everyone at risk.
“Our position at the Billings Chamber of Commerce is that in order to keep the business community at large open as well as to get the high number of cases under control, there must be enforcement behind local and state mandates,” said John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
Bullock also announced that the state health department is launching a new page where people can report their concerns. The complaint form can be found on the Department of Health and Human services website.
(first report) Gov. Steve Bullock and Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton announced Thursday new measures to enforce state and county orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
Bullock said the state has set up a new online form to allow citizens to anonymously report violations of health protocols, including ignoring the governor's face-mask order inside businesses, holding large gatherings without distancing or staying open past mandated closing hours.
Felton said Yellowstone County is hiring four new positions, called COVID education liaisons, who will contact the subjects of complaints to help them comply.
People with experience in law enforcement are the ideal candidates, he said.
The liaisons would investigate all complaints, and, if they're valid, meet with the business owner to correct the action, Felton said. The liaison would then alert the business that it would be subject to an unannounced visit.
Felton and Bullock were joined at the news conference by John Brewer, president of the Billings Chamber of Commerce. He said that the majority of Billings businesses are following the rules, but some don't.
The news conference came on a day where Montana shattered another single-day record for cases, with 932. Yellowstone County reported the most in the state with 173 new cases and has 1,978 active cases.
Watch the news conference below: