Health officials crack down on hotels, vacation rentals amid pandemic


**Embargo: Butte-Bozeman, MT**

A sign signifying the closure of the California Corner Day Use Site along the Madison River states the facilities at the public site are not maintained due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

**Credit: Meagan Thompson, The Montana Standard**

Madison County (The Montana Standard) — Madison County health officials enacted an order prohibiting RV parks, hotels, motels, short-term rentals and other lodging facilities including licensed guides and outfitters from renting or providing housing to people for non-essential purposes to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Bonnie O’Neill, public information officer for Madison County Public Health, said the county’s board of health held an emergency meeting on Thursday to approve an order “to safeguard the residents of Madison County” and “to follow the governor’s orders.” The order is in effect until April 30, or whenever the state’s stay-at-home order expires.

The order allows lodging or short-term rentals for essential workers as defined by federal and state guidelines, government officials, health care, law enforcement, victims of domestic violence, personnel responding to the COVID-19 emergency and family members of those seeking medical treatment. Individuals who have a medical recommendation to quarantine outside of their home are also allowed to rent rooms.

People who are currently staying at such businesses for non-essential purposes may be given a reasonable amount of time, but no more than 48 hours, to vacate the premises.

The county’s board of health order comes after Whitefish officials enacted an emergency ordinance Sunday morning that ordered lodging establishments and short term rentals to cancel existing reservations through April 30.

O’Neill said the board of health looked at Whitefish’s guidelines and “tried to mirror” them as much as possible. Madison County is also a known tourist destination.

She said the board will convene again on April 23 to review the temporary restrictions and decide whether to extend the order.

Violators of the health board’s new restrictions can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor and fined up to $200.

O’Neill said the board of health has a “great working relationship” with law enforcement officials, including Madison County Sheriff’s Department and Ennis Police Department, who are educating local lodging establishments, short-term rentals, guiding and outfitting services about the new restrictions, as well as how to implement them.

The Madison board of health’s order also comes at the heels of the closure of the popular Renova Hot Springs, a soaking destination on private grounds near Whitehall.

Madison County Sheriff Phil Fortner said his department is “continuing to have problems” with Renova Hot Springs, where there were large gatherings of up to 30 people on Thursday night and Friday morning.

Fortner said the owners of the hot springs live out of state, and the board of health’s closure of the site has only brought about more problems.

“I just wish people would respect people’s property and respect those who are responding to the calls,” he said.

Fortner added that his office has gotten recent calls about outfitting and fishing guides floating down the river. However, he said the board of health’s orders pertain more to lodging related to such services.

“It’s impossible for us to respond to every call related to people violating the governor’s orders,” he said. For now, Fortner said, his office’s biggest issue is controlling the number of people recreating at Renova Hot Springs.

Meanwhile, Gallatin County is not considering the same measures Madison County is taking.

Matt Kelley, Gallatin County public health officer, said one of his concerns is that Gallatin is “a much more populous county” and “it’s a much more complex situation.”

“If we start saying that people can’t stay in hotel rooms and we can’t stay in vacation rentals, we’re likely to cause a lot more people to be moving around out there and that’s what we want to avoid,” Kelley said. “We don’t want to create confusion.”

He said hotels and vacation rentals are being used for different reasons, such as health providers staying in hotels to distance themselves from their families.

Although he recognizes that Madison County’s recent orders excused people who are considered essential workers from staying in hotels and short-term rentals, Kelley said he’s concerned about “enforcement and creating confusion.”

“My feeling on that right now is if we’re asking people to stay at home, we need to allow them to do that,” Kelley said.

As of Friday morning, Madison County had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death. Meanwhile, the statewide tally had reached 365 confirmed cases and six deaths. Neighboring Gallatin County, another tourism destination, has by far the most reported cases in the state with 134.

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