HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's attorney general is ordering a county attorney to dismiss a lawsuit filed against a Bozeman bar to enforce a 10 p.m. closing time to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, something the county attorney isn't sure the attorney general can do.
Attorney General Austin Knudsen wrote to Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert on Thursday and ordered him to dismiss the case against the Rocking R Bar by noon Friday. The case was filed on behalf of the Gallatin City-County Board of Health and county health officer Matt Kelley.
“The attorney general’s letter cites a rule of civil procedure providing that all the parties may sign an agreement to ... dismiss a case,” Lambert said in a statement. Kelley does not agree to dismissal, he said, “so the rule cited by the attorney general cannot be employed.”
Lambert is not sure if the attorney general has the authority to order a county attorney to dismiss a case in which a local government entity, not the state, is a party.
“My staff and I will continue to research the matter,” he said.
A judge had granted a preliminary injunction on Dec. 16 to require the Rocking R Bar to comply with health directives, including the 10 p.m. closure time. The injunction is in place through March 1 pending further court action.
State health officials have been clear that crowds in closed spaces increase the risk of virus transmission, and that as people drink alcohol inside bars compliance with the rules decreases.
The closure rule defies common sense, Knudsen said in a statement.
“This type of government overreach is devastating to Montana workers and small businesses," he said. “Our action today is a clear message that we need to safely reopen our economy and will not allow overzealous local governments to hold Montana businesses and their employees hostage."
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte said he was lifting most business restrictions meant to limit the spread of COVID-19, including occupancy limitations and closing times for bars, restaurants, casinos and brew pubs, effective Friday.
However, counties are allowed to have more restrictive measures and Gallatin County still has a 10 p.m. closure time for businesses that serve alcohol, capacity limits for bars, restaurants and gyms and a 25-person limit to group gatherings.
“We expect businesses to comply with these rules,” Kelley said in a statement Wednesday. "This disease remains dangerous and the (health) board will continue to use the best scientific evidence and epidemiological data available to take actions to reduce spread of this dangerous disease.