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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Gyms, Public Health Officials Wade Through Reopening Confusion

Man in a gym running on a treadmill.

Reopening gyms and fitness studios in a uniform and consistent way has been difficult for public health officials because every facility is different. Now counties are saying the governor’s guidance on reopening doesn’t answer all their questions.

Michelle Berger owns Pure Pilates in Billings, and said it's been confusing weeding through what is and isn’t allowed for her businesses. She said Yellowstone County initially told her Phase One of the state’s reopening plan for gyms did not apply to her small studio.

“And at that point, over the phone, I was told we should be ok," Berger said. "So I posted a Facebook post and said we would be reopening on May 4th.”

She postponed her opening after some public blowback, but then Governor Steve Bullock’s provided guidance stating gyms and fitness studios could open May 15th. Berger is frustrated with the broad rules and how they don’t account for every business, from their facilities and to how they operate. County health officials say those issues have made it difficult to apply the rules.

State-provided public guidance has changed during the state’s gradual reopening, and at times has been inconsistent. Over the weekend, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services deleted social media posts saying rock climbing gyms were not allowed to open unless done outdoors with proper social distancing.

According to a spokesperson from Gov. Bullock’s office, that post and others on yoga and Pilates studios were taken down because they were “incorrect or misleading.” The governor’s office said the state is in regular communication with local health officials, and it answers questions and provides clarifying guidance as needed.

Riverstone Health in Billings serves as the Yellowstone County health department. Spokesperson Barbara Schneeman said local public health officials have been in constant contact with the governor’s office through the coronavirus pandemic, and Phase One, in order to clarify what is and is not allowed. For exercise facilities, that’s been especially tricky because of how unique they are.

"Not everything is able to be answered, and so what’s ended up happening in jurisdictions across the state is that there’s a lot of inconsistencies in terms of what’s open, what’s closed, how can you safely be open," she said.

Cindy Farr with the Missoula City-County Health Department said it's also tricky for health departments to have concrete answers on the application of Gov. Bullock’s guidelines because they hear about the rules when they're publicly announced. That’s led to gyms offering services they shouldn’t and opening early, according to her.

“Yeah, we have definitely seen that confusion in the county," Farr said. "We've seen some disconnect across the state, and while our local health officer tries to work closely, as closely as she can with the other local health officers to try and figure out a more concise way for everybody to be on the same page, sometimes it’s just really hard because our communities are so different.”

When it comes to enforcing directives, counties say they’re mostly just reaching out to businesses to let them know what is and isn’t allowed. Those rules will change once again on June 1, as the state moves into Phase Two of Montana’s economic reopening.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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