Gallatin County officials had planned to discuss mandating face coverings on July 14 but postponed the meeting after people seeking to give public comment refused to maintain physical distancing.
Health officials said the space for the in person- public meeting could accommodate around 100 people sitting in chairs spaced six feet apart, a measure intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and follow the state’s reopening guidelines.
But commenters quickly outnumbered chairs and several dozen people stood around the room’s edges. Sheriff Brian Gootkin asked them to go to the lobby where audio and video streaming of the meeting was set up. He said they could rotate into the main room to give comment.
“Before you shake your head, just wait a second, listen to me, if you want to have this meeting, and I want you to have this meeting, and you want to have this meeting, then please follow the rules," Gootkin said.
After several more requests, people refused to leave. Some said the county couldn’t have a meeting behind closed doors. Several made references to the Black Lives Matter movement, saying they would be allowed to stay if they were carrying BLM signs.
About ten minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start, Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner said, “We are going to have to have this meeting virtually. I’m going to ask you one more time. You know I’m really disappointed that there’s not more consideration showing.”
Sheriff Gootkin said the health board chair would postpone the meeting until 1:30 P.M. Tuesday. Someone in the crowd shouted that violated public notice requirements.
“It’s 48 hours notice required. You can’t postpone it until 1:30. Forty eight hours! …”
Several hours later, Gallatin County rescheduled the meeting for 7 A.M. Friday. It will be held virtually only. Public comment can be submitted via email and people can register for the audio live stream.
The health board will discuss an emergency rule that would require people ages 12 and up to wear masks in retail businesses, bars and restaurants, government buildings, schools and most other public indoor spaces.
Exceptions would include certain people with medical conditions that would be exacerbated by wearing face coverings.
A Gallatin County spokesperson said over 1,700 public comments were submitted by Tuesday.
The health board on Friday will also consider extending its emergency rule requiring people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to remain in isolation until they are no longer contagious.
In recent weeks, Big Horn and Missoula counties mandated mask wearing in most public spaces. The City of Whitefish voted unanimously in favor of required face coverings on July 14 and the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department will have a discussion about requiring face masks Wednesday evening. Butte-Silver Bow won't make a decision until next week.