Reported cases of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, came later to Montana than most of the rest of the country. But soon after the last edition of The Monitor was printed, local urgency heightened quickly: Jefferson County declared a state of emergency and limited access to government offices, and Gov. Steve Bullock ordered the closure of numerous businesses to encourage social distancing and slow the virus’ spread.
What follows is a recap of what’s happened in Jefferson County since March 18.
Health officer, board encourage voluntary closures
The Jefferson County Board of Health and Jefferson County Health Officer Joan Van Duynhoven encouraged sit-down eating and drinking businesses and gyms to voluntarily close to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Regular incident management reports begin
The Jefferson County Emergency Operations Center began emailing a regular report to keep residents and various county departments abreast of measures taken and planned as the county responds to the novel coronavirus emergency.
Jefferson County declares emergency
The Jefferson County Commission declared a state of emergency/disaster in the face of the growing COVID-19 virus threat.
Though no cases of the virus had been confirmed in the county, the declaration was made “due to the virulent nature of the virus” and “in order to activate applicable provisions of Jefferson County’s emergency and disaster plan in anticipation of [its] spread,” according to the terms of the declaration.
The declaration, confirmed in a 3-0 vote during a special Commission meeting, directed that the county’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan be implemented and authorized “all necessary County offices and departments to take appropriate action to assist the County and individuals in containing, preparing for, responding to and recovering from this emergency/disaster; and to protect County property, and provide such other assistance as may be necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare.”
The declaration authorizes the Commission to levy a millage not to exceed two mills on the taxable value of real property to cover expenditures related to the emergency. However, the commissioners have said they do not wish to impose the levy; they have until September to decide.
Public access to county offices and buildings restricted
Within hours of declaring the state of emergency, Jefferson County’s commissioners approved a resolution restricting public access to county offices and buildings to minimize the risk of exposure to and the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
According to the terms of the resolution, the county “will continue to conduct necessary business” but “strongly encourages” those needing to do business with a county department to call or email that department. “Individual offices and departments will make every effort to accommodate requests for assistance,” the resolution states.
County email addresses and phone numbers can be found online at jeffersoncounty-mt.gov.
The resolution was decided upon despite a lack of public notice and under a sense of urgency surrounding the COVID-19 virus threat. “We’ve done other things on an emergency basis before,” said Commissioner Bob Mullen.
Stating a preference for giving the proper 48 hours’ notice for a pending Commission decision, County Attorney Steve Haddon acknowledged that “we’re in uncharted waters here, folks.”
Having reviewed Montana statutes that grant the Commision certain “jurisdiction and power,” Haddon said “we’re not alone in doing this,” citing similar actions recently undertaken by other counties. “We are looking to minimize a health risk and try to slow this horse down,” Haddon said. “I am comfortable with the Commission proceeding forward with this.”
“I think we’re doing the right thing here,” said Doug Dodge, the county’s director of emergency services. “If things get worse you might need to make even more restrictions.”
Boulder Council, JHS board schedule special meetings
The City of Boulder scheduled a special meeting of the City Council for 11:30 a.m. March 26 to discuss and determine whether to declare an emergency, to restrict access to public offices and buildings, and to establish a temporary leave and remote work policy for city employees. The meeting will be held by teleconference only; people can listen in by dialing 720-548-9573.
Jefferson High School District No. 1 scheduled a special board meeting for noon on March 26 to discuss and decide on possible changes to COVID-19 mandates and whether to enter into a memorandum of understanding with local collective bargaining units. The meeting can be attended remotely by calling 406-247-0936 and entering 771731449 for the meeting number.
Montana governor orders closures
Gov. Steve Bullock ordered statewide closures affecting numerous public-facing establishments including restaurants, casinos, brew pubs and gyms. The order allowed flexibility for some establishments, however, including letting restaurants provide carry-out, drive-through and window services. The order was to be in effect until March 27.
District court closes to public, sets guidelines
Montana’s Fifth Judicial Court, which includes Jefferson County, closed its courthouses to the public until May 1 and set guidelines for various hearings to take place remotely. No criminal trials are to take place until May 4, and all trial setting orders were continued 30 days. Civil trials and hearings scheduled for before May 4 were continued, with new dates to be scheduled “when more information is available.”
Montana launches COVID-19 website
The Montana COVID-19 Task Force launched a website (covid19.mt.gov) that’s updated twice a day with the latest number of cases reported in the state, including location.
Second county incident meeting held
The Jefferson County Emergency Operations Center held its second weekly meeting to apprise various departments of its COVID-19 planning and response.
A change was announced in the county’s unified command structure. Health Officer Joan Van Duynhoven replaced Public Health Supervisor Karen Wandel so that Wandel can be freed up to prepare for when Jefferson County has COVID-19 cases to contend with, said Doug Dodge, director of the county’s disaster and emergency services and the lead in in the unified command.
Molly Carey, the county health department’s clinic coordinator, will replace Van Duynhoven as the COVID-19 response public information lead.
Dodge also reported that cell phones have been ordered in anticipation of increased phone calls coming into the health department, and county employees identified to help provide that phone support.
County Attorney Steve Haddon reported that his office awaits guidance from the Montana Office of the Attorney General on how to enforce Gov. Steve Bullock’s closure order in the event of violations. Enforcement is clearer in the event of an order by the county health officer, he said.
In either case, Haddon indicated he would be more interested in educating and informing violators for the first offense, an attitude shared by Bob Fry of Montana Disaster and Emergency Services.
“The enforcement of this stuff is not as critical as the education component,” he said. “This is going to last longer if people don’t work within [the isolation] parameters.”
Dodge said he’d “be surprised” if the governor didn’t extend his school and business closure order beyond March 27 “but I guess we’ll just see what happens when it gets here.”