Numerous business owners and operators in Butte voiced frustrations with COVID-19 restrictions Monday before new Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher and strongly suggested that some be lifted or eased.
They took particular aim at state and local mandates that force casinos, bars and restaurants to close nightly by 10 p.m., saying they are killing business without sound rationale. Health officials say there are legitimate reasons for all the restrictions.
“COVID does not come out at 10 p.m. or 10:05 or 10:30,” Jeanette Kappes, owner of Crazee Carols Casino on Walnut Street, told other Butte business owners who gathered Monday afternoon at La Casa Toscana, an Italian restaurant on East Park Street. “I don’t get being told that bad behavior starts at 10 p.m.”
Matt Skuletich, owner of the Acoma Lounge and Bar on Broadway Street, said the 10 p.m. curfew “is what is causing me to go bankrupt.”
“If it doesn’t go, I’m out of business and employees here lose their jobs,” he said.
Others said they were not the “mask police,” noting that 50%-capacity restrictions on them were not applied to giant employers like Walmart, and said people were still drinking after 10 p.m. but getting their alcohol from convenience stores and liquor stores.
La Casa Toscana owner Sonia Zachow helped organize the meeting and invited Gallagher to attend so he could hear firsthand how COVID restrictions are affecting small businesses in Butte.
She said COVID-19 was a very serious condition and local health officials were not the enemy, but said fears and mandates were especially hitting small businesses hard and “there has got to be a medium” regarding restrictions.
Gallagher said the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department and its director, Karen Sullivan, were trying to protect people and were not out to shut down businesses.
Local health officials were not the bad guys, he said, but some had received death threats “and had to have people come to their house to protect them.” He also noted that he doesn’t have authority to override their orders even if he wanted to.
But he said he wanted to listen and learn about all the concerns and would work with others in local government and the community to help businesses in Butte get through the crisis.
“It’s tough and it’s tough for everybody in here and it’s emotional and I understand that,” he said. “Everybody has their own story and how it’s affecting them and we will work together to see what we can do.”
Many local restrictions, including the 10 p.m. curfew on some establishments, were also imposed by previous Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who was sworn in Monday, could soon revamp the state requirements.
Counties cannot be less restrictive than the state but they can be tougher, so even if Gianforte lifts mandates on wearing masks in public or other orders, local health departments can keep their own rules in place.
Sullivan says some restrictions will be lightened if the county is able to reach 25 cases per 100,000 population for two consecutive weeks, and a positivity rate of less than 10% for two consecutive weeks.
The restrictions would move to allow 75% capacity in bars, casinos and restaurants, 12:30 a.m. closing times, and health department approval would be required for gatherings of more than 50 people instead of the current limit of 25.
But Sullivan said Monday that the numbers aren’t there yet. The department reported 11 new deaths in Butte-Silver Bow on Monday, bringing the total to 58, and the latest positivity rate is 11.3 percent.
Sullivan says the rationale behind the 10 p.m. closing curfew is primarily about the consumption of alcohol. As consumption increases, inhibitions lessen and mask-wearing and social distancing become more challenging.
But several business owners complained about the curfew Monday, saying the lost business after 10 p.m. was substantial and some establishments won’t survive if it remains in place much longer.
Several said they disinfect their establishments and closely follow other precautionary orders and protocols, but they shouldn’t be in charge of enforcing mask mandates.
“I am not the mask police,” said Danny Surtain, manager of the UPS Store on Harrison Avenue, adding that restrictions on small businesses are not being applied to box stores and Amazon, among other employers.
“We need to find a balance,” he said.
Local health officials say compliance personnel have been out in the community helping to educate about masks and restrictions, but also checking on compliance, to help keep the virus at bay.
At least two of the business owners said Sullivan and local health officials should have been at Monday’s gathering, but Gallagher said he specifically asked her not to attend.
“There was so much on social media that was demeaning of her and toward her department and I didn’t want that to be involved here,” he told The Montana Standard after the meeting. “I didn’t want her to come here and get attacked.
“I thought that we could kind of moderate the conversation, listen to the businesses and we could move on from there.”