Violators of Yellowstone County and Montana state orders to limit group gatherings and maintain social distance could face up to 90 days in jail and fines, county officials said during a news conference Wednesday in Billings.
Law enforcement officers said they will not be stopping drivers on the road for no reason or putting up check points or road blocks. Since Gov. Steve Bullock issued his stay-at-home order that went into effect Saturday, residents have generally been following those guidelines, Billings Police Lt. Brandon Wooley said.
Nevertheless, law-enforcement and public-health officials said they wanted to underscore, in somber tones, the importance of following these order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
"The cost of failing to follow these guidelines is catastrophic... The cost of failure is almost unimaginable," said John Felton, Yellowstone County health officer.
Felton issued an order on March 16 closing all bars, dine-in restaurants and casinos. It was later extended to run through April 10 and could likely last longer. The city of Billings has also closed all playgrounds, and tennis, volleyball and basketball courts.
Bullock's stay-at-home order directs closure of nonessential businesses and prohibits public gatherings of groups. It also runs through April 10 and faces a likely extension.
The state order allows people to leave their homes to go shopping for food and necessary supplies or to go to work at businesses deemed essential. It also allows for outdoor recreation, provided people maintain a social distance of six feet.
County officials held the news conference a day after President Trump said the United States could see more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. A model created by University of Washington and used by the administration shows Montana could see 268 deaths of the disease by early August , with peak cases coming in late April.
Montana reported 208 COVID-19 cases Wednesday morning , and Yellowstone County has 32 cases.
Wooley and Felton were joined at the news conference by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, who said he will prosecute violations of the orders but would take no pleasure in doing so.
"I implore you, please follow these orders," Twito said.
Wooley said law enforcement county-wide are boosting patrols to boost voluntary compliance and education first. He gave examples of egregious violations that would warrant citations, such as 20 people gathered in a park clustered together or repeat violators.
Yellowstone County has set up a hotline to report violations. The number is 406-651-6415.
Watch the full briefing below: