BILLINGS — By the end of last week, around 50 percent of Yellowstone County restaurants, bars, casinos and wineries had submitted sanitation and social distancing plans to reopen once authorities say it's safe to do so, according to the health department.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton updated the Billings City Council on the numbrers at its Monday night virtual meeting.
Felton said the reason for the social-distancing plan is food-service businesses are considered high risk for the spread of disease.
"The issue with food-service is that it’s a very high-risk type of environment. Two, it’s a complex environment. Three, it’s an environment that local public health licenses. We don’t license the other types of businesses for the most part. So retail, gyms things like that we don’t license. The other types of organizations don’t need to complete any sort of plan," Felton said.
Felton said the county health department will issue safety guidance for other businesses like retailers and gyms. But there are no forms to be sent by those businesses to the health department.
As part of the plan for restaurants, owners must find a way to increase the distance between patrons and have a plan for enhanced cleaning of surfaces, among other requirements. Click here to read them.
Even if restaurants have completed the plan, they will remain closed until Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Felton say it's safe to do so. Bullock is planning a news conference Wednesday to discuss a phased reopening strategy to allow certain businesses to be opened over time. This is after President Trump identified Montana as one of four states to reopen first.
“Montana, because of the success we’ve had in tamping down the cases, was actually identified as one of the first four (states) in the nation that should be ready to start reopening," Felton said.
Felton said the health department has reached out to the 50 percent of restaurants and bars that haven't filled out the social-distancing plan.
"Because we license them, we have all their contact information. And our sanitarians reached out to all the establishments that have not submitted a plan yet to make sure they know exactly what to do," Felton said.
As far as a date to reopen Yellowstone County restaurants, Felton said there's no good answer until he hears from Bullock.
“Really there’s not a good answer to that until we hear from the governor as to exactly how he chooses to do that," Felton said.
The county health department is also working on a plan for how to manage outdoor group activities like the farmers market and Alive After Five, Felton said.
Depending on the governor's action, Felton could choose to keep Yellowstone County restaurants and bars closed if he deems the risk for public health is too high, even if Bullock lifts restrictions across the state.
“The higher of two standards controls. Let's just imagine that the governor said restaurants could open. And we were still concerned about disease spread and those sorts of things. You can have a local order that says restaurants can not open or open subject to conditions. If the governor says restaurants can not open, we can’t locally say ‘we’re fine with those restaurants opening.’ Whichever is the higher standard is the one that controls," Felton said.
As Montana begins to get back on its feet, Felton said more COVID-19 testing resources are available for the state.
“On Wednesday, the state health department is due to spin up another testing unit. Which will come close to doubling their testing capacity," Felton said.
State and county officials will watch the rate of positive tests and burden on the health care system for metrics to judge whether the reopening strategy is working.