KALISPELL — Five businesses in Montana have filed counterclaims against the state after being accused of violating public health orders intended to the limit the spread of COVID-19.
The Flathead County businesses were accused of disregarding social distancing and mask mandates implemented by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, The Daily Inter Lake reported.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services filed a lawsuit against the Remington Bar, Sykes Diner and Scotty's Bar in Kalispell, and the Ferndale Market and Your Turn Mercantile-Your Lucky Turn Casino near Bigfork after sending inspectors in October.
The businesses filed a counter lawsuit claiming the agency selectively targeted them and hurt them financially, officials said. The lawsuit is seeking damages, attorney fees and a judgment saying the health department does not have the authority to enforce the governor's mandates.
"The department's decision to file this action against my client was a clear abuse of the legal process, especially as they did not even bother to contact my client about any purported violations prior to filing suit," said Connor Walker, an attorney for the Remington Bar in Whitefish.
Several owners and employees of the businesses said during a hearing last week that they exceeded the requirements of the governor's orders by offering masks to customers and implementing stringent cleaning regimens. Some also said they would lose employees, alienate customers and risk going out of business.
Doug White, owner of Your Turn Mercantile and Your Lucky Turn Casino, testified that one customer threatened an employee with a gun after being asked to wear a mask.
Department attorneys argued the businesses had not undertaken "reasonable" or "good-faith" efforts to enforce the mask mandate, citing maskless customers the inspectors had observed while visiting the businesses last month.
The Flathead City-County Health Department had conducted previous inspections, issued warnings and referred Sykes Diner and the Ferndale Market to the county attorney's office, which took no enforcement action.
District Judge Dan Wilson declined the state's requests for preliminary injunctions against the businesses last week. He also said he would be "highly inclined" to award the businesses legal fees if the state continues pushing for restraining orders and does not present a stronger case.
"While we are still reviewing these claims, it is our hope that the defendants are working in good faith to protect the health of their staff and customers," department spokesman Jon Ebelt said in a statement.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.