Over 100 people attended the health department’s early morning special meeting – higher than the number allowed by the governor’s social distancing directive. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Mask meeting mayhem

POSTPONED MEETING UP IN THE AIR IN LIGHT OF GOVERNOR'S DIRECTIVE

Gallatin City-County health officials are determining how to proceed in light of Gov. Steve Bullock's recent face covering directive.

The Tuesday morning Gallatin City-County Board of Health special meeting regarding a possible emergency health rule that would require the use of face coverings had a contentious end – in fact, it never really started.

The tone changed several times – from a well attended meeting to a protest to something like a town hall.

Lines of people interested in providing public comment extended out the front doors of The Commons prior to the 7 a.m. assembly.

Noting the mandate from Gov. Steve Bullock outlining social distancing protocols, Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner as well as Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin let the crowd know that only 100 participants were allowed and there were too many people in the room. They asked if those standing would step outside and take turns providing their public comments.

This request was met with shouts from the crowd about the Constitutional right to assemble and statements like, “You ruined our county once, we won’t let you do it again!”

Sheriff Gootkin and members of the board had a discussion further back on the stage – and the decision was made: If social distancing guidelines could not be followed, the meeting could not continue.

As they left the stage, masked members of the board were met with what Sheriff Gootkin later defined as heckling by a predominantly anti-mask crowd. About forty-five minutes into the gathering, one man yelled several times, “If you are for masking, raise your hand!” No one did. Initially stating that the meeting would take place at 1:30 that afternoon, county officials later settled upon Friday morning to meet public notice requirements.

Emotions ran high as a few incited attendees charged toward the stage, pointing fingers and saying, “You can’t do this to us.”

Several yelled from the crowd to encourage a protest – the idea that they would not disassemble and would not leave.

Sheriff Gootkin addressed attendees at that point. He requested to speak with them – not to them – and exited the stage to stand among them. He then said that the beauty of America is that citizens do not have to agree. He also noted that the great thing about Montana is that disagreements are typically sorted respectfully. He said he wished he could have shared his thoughts with the board – that the sheriff’s department has enough to worry about besides fielding calls about people not wearing masks. His examples included mental health calls that doubled this last month and deputies needing to respond to accidents.

Commissioner Skinner reminded attendees that the sheriff does not sit on the board and would not be making the decision. They still wanted to speak. Henry Kriegel, community engagement director for Americans for Prosperity asked those gathered if they would consider taking turns being in the room in order to provide public comment at a later meeting, noting that such an agreement could equal the possibility of an in-person meeting instead of a shift to a virtual meeting. That suggestion was largely shot down by the crowd.

The Sheriff shared the microphone with others who wanted to voice their opinions, but requested that it happen in an orderly fashion – one at a time. One woman, with microphone in hand, tearfully prayed for the board. Another lady expressed concern that she and her children would be accosted by mask wearers in the grocery store for not wearing masks. Sheriff Gootkin said that was unlikely, that staff would probably just ask her to leave. A few people expressed concern that they would be arrested if they do not wear face coverings. No one will be arrested, Gootkin said. Others said they believed wearing a face covering would be detrimental to personal health.

“Like many of you, I have to get to work soon,” Sheriff Gootkin said. One woman hugged him and handed him two boxes of doughnuts. He took one, began eating it to cheers and chuckles, and continued answering questions. People eventually dispersed and went about their days.

“The intention of the face coverings is to allow the Board to consider all options to slow the spread of the disease and to keep businesses open and the economy moving,” Matt Kelley, Health Officer of Gallatin County said according to an earlier press release. “We are seeing rising case numbers every day and these measures are our best options to slow the spread without closing businesses or issuing stay-at-home orders.”

The face coverings rule would require the use of face coverings by most people within most indoor public settings. The board is also to consider a second measure that would require those who have tested positive for COVID-19 to remain in isolation until they are no longer contagious.

Gallatin County had 72 additional cases as of July 15.

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