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Montana sues businesses not complying with mask mandate
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Montana sues businesses not complying with mask mandate

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Gov. Steve Bullock

Gov. Steve Bullock is photographed in July.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Thursday that the state health department is pursuing legal action against several businesses in northwestern Montana after they failed to follow restrictions meant to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The announcement came as the state reported 932 new cases of COVID-19, smashing the previous daily case record of 734. The new cases include 173 in Yellowstone county and 112 in Flathead County.

Bullock said the state is pursuing temporary restraining orders against five businesses in Flathead County, after the local health department decided not to take action to limit the spread of the virus, despite a sharp rise in cases this month.

He declined to identify the businesses until the cases are filed in court.

The state also launched a website to allow people to submit complaints against businesses and events that are not complying with health directives. The complaints will be reviewed by the state health department and then sent to local authorities for investigation.

The governor announced last week that he would provide coronavirus relief funds to counties in order to hire additional staff needed to track violations of the health mandates and pursue legal actions against businesses that fail to comply.

Yellowstone County health officer John Felton said Thursday that Montana's most populous county — which has also seen the state's largest COVID-19 outbreak — has accepted the offer for additional funding from the governor. It will use the money to hire four new staff members to track complaints against businesses that fail to comply with health orders, Felton said.

Separately, the Hill county health board approved a new plan to curb the spread of the virus on Wednesday, KOJM-AM radio reported.

According to the plan, if Hill County reports more than 58 cases during the week ending Nov. 1, social gatherings will be limited to no more than 25 people and restaurants and bars will be limited to 50% capacity. Schools, school activities and sports will be exempt from the order. The new restrictions would last for a month.

Hill County currently has 341 active cases, 23 of them reported on Thursday.

Hill county sanitarian Clay Vincent said during the board meeting that the department has received complaints of individuals "absolutely refusing to wear a mask," KOJM reported.

"They are basically saying it's their right, they don't have to. To this point, we have tried education, we have tried begging them, we have talked to them, we have done everything in the world. But there is no response," Vincent said.

The enforcement measures were announced as Montana's infection rate ranked as one of the highest per capita in the nation. New figures from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington indicate that if the state doesn't implement new restrictions, deaths caused by the coronavirus could reach 800 by February.

The state has so far reported 25,640 cases of COVID-19, but the number of total cases is believed to be far higher because not everyone has been tested, and people can have coronavirus without showing symptoms. The state has counted 278 deaths related to the virus, and 353 people are hospitalized.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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