The vast majority of Montana counties aren’t taking Gov. Steve Bullock up on his offer to help pay for the enforcement of public health guidelines aimed at slowing a surge in COVID-19 cases. It's been two weeks since the governor offered extra support in federal CARES Act funds to pay for counties' enforcement work.*
Bullock said at a press conference late last week at RiverStone Health in Billings that the governor’s office has begun talks with counties around the state about how best to allocate that money, which will come from the $300 million Local Government Reimbursement program as part of the CARES Act for the enforcement of public health policies.
"I've heard from a wide cross section of Montana that compliance with common sense safety measures is sometimes wanting," he said.
In a follow up email a few days later, Marissa Perry, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, told MTPR that four of Montana’s 56 counties are in talks with the office about the money. For others, the offer is still “on the table.”
The Governor’s Office offered the funding in mid-October to help counties pay for things like educational resources and attorneys, amid growing COVID-19 case numbers and concern over businesses not complying with restrictions. The governor’s office has also launched a website for citizens to report businesses that haven’t complied with health orders.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton spoke at that same press conference last week.
"Clearly, we all need to step-up our efforts to individually do what we can to prevent more illness and more death."
He says Yellowstone County’s first step will be to hire more personnel to handle COVID education and to investigate violations.
The governor’s office says Lewis and Clark County also requested reimbursement for an investigator, and Cascade and Missoula Counties are also seeking funding.
Ellen Leahy is the director and health officer for the Missoula City-County Health Department. She says the department is strapped right now.
"We're just now getting into more significant enforcement and much more significant numbers of cases and transmission," Leahy says.
Most other counties in Montana, especially those with smaller populations, aren’t pursuing the extra funds. Susan Woods is the health officer and director of the Central Montana Health District. She says her department doesn’t have the same need for the money that harder-hit counties like Yellowstone do. It has received grants to fight the virus, but isn’t looking for money specifically for enforcement of mandates.
"The money has been for our overall response, and it has been very helpful."
Woods says her department is currently waiting on money that will allow it to hire extra staff to work more generally on their COVID-19 response.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of money available for county mandate enforcement. The actual amount is not yet defined and will be based on the requests that the governor’s office receives.