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Quarantine directive irks county officials

| May 19, 2020 7:40 AM

County Health Department officials say they are inundated with complaints regarding the state’s voluntary self-quarantine protocol for out-of-state travelers.

Gov. Steve Bullock in March directed out-of-state visitors and residents traveling from beyond Montana’s borders to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the Treasure State. The measure is intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus from beyond the state line.

Those traveling for work-related reasons are exempt from the quarantine. As of May 11, the quarantine order was still in effect.

But county officials say the requirement is impossible to enforce, adding to the litany of complaints they have voiced regarding the governor’s COVID-19 response.

During a May 13 Lincoln County Board of Commissioners meeting, Health Department Director Kathi Hooper said her staff has fielded multiple complaints from residents regarding out-of-town visitors.

“There are a lot of people coming here to run away from hotspots,” said Jennifer McCully, the county’s public health manager.

For county commissioners Mark Peck (D-1) and Jerry Bennett (D-2), the inability to either enforce or overrule the governor’s directive has only added to their frustrations with how the COVID-19 pandemic has been handled by Helena and Washington, D.C.

“It’s an impossible directive,” said Bennett, who also noted that the problem was only going to grow as tourists flocked to the county to enjoy outdoor recreation.

Peck also pointed to the inanity of requiring an individual who traveled to Boundary County, which has not had any known cases, to self-quarantine, but not Kalispell, where coronavirus cases have been reported.

Peck said it exemplified the dissonance between the state government and local municipalities throughout the pandemic. When the state issues an unenforceable directive, local officials are left holding the bag, he said.

He would have preferred to see Helena issue guidelines that local leaders could apply to what was happening at the ground level.

“They’re taking away our ability to think for ourselves and practice common sense and I think most people are doing that and that’s why it’s been effective [against COVID-19],” Peck said.

He pointed to the Libby branch of Rosaeurs Supermarkets. Although open throughout the pandemic, no employee has tested positive for the coronavirus. The steps management and local officials took to limit the possible spread of illness resulted in the same number of cases had the store closed completely, Peck said.

“My theory for why Rosaeurs didn’t have any positives is because people were practicing prevention guidelines,” he said.

Peck and Bennett have previously criticized the state’s handling of the pandemic. Earlier this month, the pair questioned the governor’s phased plan for a return to normalcy, particularly the reopening of bars and saloons ahead of gyms and fitness studios.

Those decisions were better left to local officials, Peck said at the time.

He reported also receiving complaints from residents worried about opening gathering spots back up again.

At the May 13 commissioner meeting, Hooper and McCully said local restaurants and bars were self-enforcing the state’s social distancing guidelines.

“They’ve been willing to have people leave,” Hooper said. “If [customers] are insisting on coming up to the bar, they tell them to go home.”

“It comes down to: You don’t want to be the source of an outbreak,” McCully said.

And that reflects personal choice and responsibility, Bennett said, not government intervention.

“But again, you have to rely on the individual,” he said.