UPDATE: Flathead Board of Health Orders Eateries, Gyms to Close Friday

Restaurants will be able to continue to provide take-out, delivery services

By Justin Franz
Restaurants, bars and other eateries around Whitefish have either closed or have switched to take-out or delivery only as a measure to mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus, as seen on March 17, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Updated: March 19, 3:20 p.m.

The Flathead City-County Health Board has voted to close all bars, restaurants and fitness centers to the public for at least 10 days in an effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

While Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson did not need board approval to issue the order, she asked the nine-person board to support it. Eight members voted yes while Dr. Annie Bukacek voted against the measure.

The order goes into effect at 6 a.m. Friday.

The order also calls for the closing of casinos, workout studios, ice skating rinks, indoor climbing venues, cinemas and theatres. It does not apply to physical therapy practices so long as those facilities are employing appropriate social distancing.

The order allows restaurants to continue offering take-out and delivery services, a safety measure many businesses have resorted to on their own accord. It does not impact grocery or convenience stores, although convenience stores with combined restaurants are required to close their dining rooms.

Flathead County now joins a number of other communities across the state in ordering bars and restaurants to close or change how they serve customers. Earlier this week, the county sent out a press release urging businesses to make moves to promote social distancing, including closing public spaces and transitioning to take-out or delivery services. Hanson said the order signed on Thursday now allows the county to enforce those recommendations.

During the meeting on Thursday afternoon, a number of doctors from Kalispell Regional Healthcare, including Chief Medical Officer Doug Nelson, spoke in favor of the move to close public spaces.

Bukacek was the lone opponent of the measure. In comments to the board and via a packet she distributed to its members, Bukacek questioned whether COVID-19 was as deadly as medical officials have stated, and asked whether forcing businesses to close was going too far. She also said she was worried about food shortages caused by public fear and that people who are not experiencing symptoms of coronavirus may not receive the attention they need from a medical system focused on the outbreak.

Nelson countered that while elective operations are being postponed or canceled, Kalispell Regional Healthcare was still responding to the community’s health needs, even those that extend beyond COVID-19.

Bukacek handed out a printout that called Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and leader of the federal government’s response to the outbreak, a “fearmonger.”

“If the sky really is falling then we should do all these things,” she said, in reference to the recommendation to shutter businesses. “But what if it’s not true.”

“This is no more dangerous than influenza,” she added.

Bukacek, a local physician and outspoken critic of vaccinations, was appointed by the Flathead County Commission to the health board in December.

County Commissioner Pam Holmquist also sits on the health board and backed the motion to close businesses.

“I am very concerned about our community and our local economy, but at the end of the day, we’re doing this to protect our community.”