BILLINGS — Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said Wednesday he's had conversations with state leaders to bring more COVID-19 health order enforcement resources to the county.
At a virtual Billings Chamber of Commerce meeting, Twito, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton and the governor's legal counsel, Raph Graybill, discussed funding options available through the state's CARES Act (federal coronavirus relief) money.
On Tuesday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock called on Twito and other county officials to step up enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.
Twito said the county attorney's office receives hundreds of complaints per day, most of which wouldn't hold up in court. He said there's not enough resources to go toward enforcement.
“I can only begin to understand the struggles that you (business owners) are all in and all of the pressure on businesses and institutions in our community. I have been quite honestly very loath to push hard on this authority. I think it would be incredibly taxing on the resources that my office has. I’m not sitting here to make excuses or anything of that nature. But the bottom line is that in the 25 years that I've been a prosecutor in this community, I’ve never seen a county attorney’s office prosecute a curfew violation," Twito said.
Twito said he's been struggling to keep the courts on schedule through the pandemic. Courts were closed for a period of time and jurors are being brought to courtrooms in separate groups to comply with physical distancing and group size limitations.
No citations have so far been issued to any county businesses for COVID-19 order violations, Twito said.
Up to this point, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office has taken an education-first approach. Twito said his staff have fielded hundreds of calls to businesses, educating them about the importance of following health officer orders.
At a statewide level, Graybill said he's seen legal success in counties like Missoula, Lewis and Clark and Helena in civil court, not criminal. Civil penalties move through the court system more quickly and don't carry jail time, only fines.
For a business or organization to have civil COVID-19 charges, Graybill said there would have to be repeat complaints filed. Then the health department sends out a written education form for the business to implement. If more complaints come in, the health department issues a legally-binding compliance order that the business will have to follow if they are to reopen.
"They essentially sue the business, get a temporary restraining order and that business can’t operate until they go back into compliance. That’s something that can happen very quickly. There is due process. There is review by a court, but it doesn’t get wrapped up in this 90 day process that the criminal sanction gets involved in," Graybill said.
Graybill said he had a conversation with Twito Wednesday about what the state can do to provide more resources to help with the civil enforcement. Graybill said counties can apply to have costs reimbursed through the state that will be paid for with CARES Act money.
Much of the responsibility to make sure people are masked falls on local business owners or employees. They are the ones who have tell their customers to wear a mask or leave. Twito said the community has backing from the Billings Police Department and Yellowstone County Sheriff to remove people for trespassing.
"If you're running a business and you have a patron coming in that is not wearing a mask and they refuse to comply with wearing a mask which is required under the directive. We try to take that off of you both the (Billings police) chief and the sheriff said you can immediately call them and they will send someone down to deal with that person and issue a trespassing violation to make sure you're in compliance," Twito said.
Felton said that the county needs to do everything it can to reduce the number of people congregating and slow the spread of COVID-19. Last week, the county added about 700 new cases. Felton said that number isn't sustainable for the health care system. It also takes thousands of people considered close contacts of those cases out of work.
"We’re going to run out of employees. We’re going to run out of workers. Right now, every case is linked to an average of 3.5 to four contacts, which means that those 700 cases that we had last week resulted in somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 needing to go into quarantine. Those are your employees, those are your school kids, those are your teachers. We have got to slow this thing down," Felton said.
If people don't wear a mask, keep their distance, wash their hands and stay home when they're sick, Felton said there's not many options left other than a more strict health officer order.
"Quite honestly, we’re running out of options what comes next after giving all of us a chance to do our part, really what we’re talking about is things do go into a more onerous restrictions," Felton said.