The City of Whitefish recently enacted an ordinance prohibiting hotels and vacation rentals from accepting guests for non-essential purposes. The ordinance attempts to address the public-health threat posed by individuals traveling to the city to “shelter in place.” However, the ordinance, while well intended, overlooks the gaping chasm of out-of-area folks traveling to Whitefish who don’t use rented housing. Review of the license plates around Flathead and Whitefish lakes reveals more out-of-area residents who own second homes here than utilize vacation rentals. The ordinance also fails to consider the out-of-area folks visiting valley residents in their homes. And the penalty for violating the ordinance? Revocation of the business license, which occurs after the threat — out-of-area visitors — breaches city boundaries.
The City of Kalispell is addressing the issue of out-of-area visitors by granting the city manager the authority to stop ingress and egress to the City of Kalispell. Implementation of such a measure has significant consequences, but it actually addresses the full scope of the threat. Several American Indian Nations in Montana have implemented the action, and as I wrote in my last column, Gunnison, Colorado implemented checkpoints and limitations to ingress and egress during the Spanish Flu and escaped the ravages of the virus. In response to COVID-19, Cordoba, Spain, a small destination town (much like Whitefish), has blocked all but one of the town’s five entrances, where a checkpoint exists. Every vehicle allowed to enter Cordoba is sanitized, and out-of-area visitors are turned away. Much like Whitefish, 25 percent of Cordoba’s population is considered vulnerable and is elderly. Cordoba’s efforts in preventing anyone “unknown” from entering city limits have thus far been successful in preventing a single case of COVID-19. These efforts seem to be a more effective method to contain disease versus an ordinance that revokes business licenses as a penalty.
The City of Whitefish unquestionably initiated the ordinance for the right reasons. The governor’s efforts were equally laudable when he sent the National Guard to implement health checks at airports. But the health checks are voluntary, so those seeking to evade detection will simply avoid the checks. Full scope threat containment is the key to protecting the health, welfare, and safety of residents. By punishing local business owners for the sins of their patrons, Whitefish targets only a portion of the current threat. Development of a cohesive Flathead County strategy via a meeting of all local mayors and the county commissioners is in order. Without an evidence-based, consistent approach, expect more piecemeal regulation that at its best only targets a portion of the threat, and at worst, provides a false sense of security, further undermining the credibility of local government.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.