Officials Say Weddings, Bars Linked to Dozens of COVID-19 Cases in Montana

Business leaders join governor in calling for widespread mask wearing; health officials urge caution in group settings heading into Fourth of July

By Myers Reece
Gov. Steve Bullock tours an alternative care facility under construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the top floor of Montana Children’s hospital at Kalispell Regional Healthcare on May 21, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Gov. Steve Bullock said six recent weddings contributed to 24 new COVID-19 cases in Montana and will likely be linked to “many more” in the coming weeks, while health officials are also reporting that people congregating in places such as bars have led to other cases as Montana heads into the busy Fourth of July weekend.

In light of the developments and rising cases statewide, Bullock, health officials and business leaders are banding together to plead with Montanans and visitors to wear masks in public when social distancing isn’t possible. The governor said “masking up is the responsible thing to do” and has been shown to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

“It’s clear from analyzing the data that we have let our guard down,” the governor said on July 2.

The call from state business leaders to wear masks came in a July 1 letter signed by the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Restaurant Association, Montana Tavern Association, Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association, Montana Gaming Association, and Hospitality and Development Association of Montana.

The letter called upon the public “to help do all that it can to keep us in Phase 2 operations and stay on track for an economic recovery.”

“We recognize that face masks may be controversial, but we also want to stay ahead of this growing threat to the safety of our employees and our customers and we want to stay open to serve our customers to the fullest extent possible,” Brad Griffin, President of the Montana Restaurant Association, said in the letter.

Todd O’Hair, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said in a July 2 joint press conference with Bullock that wearing masks will help the state avoid rolling back reopening plans, which has happened in at least 21 other states, led by both Democrats and Republicans.

“We we cannot afford to go back and experience that sort of rollback in any way, shape or form in Montana,” O’Hair said.

O’Hair noted that “government grants, low-interest loans, business bailout dollars cannot compare to healthy economy activity.”

“The best salve for the Montana economy is going to be a healthy population, and (mask wearing) is an important step that we think is necessary to not only protect employees and customers but the Montana economy,” he said.

Bullock said he prefers for mask wearing to become more “socially acceptable” through grassroots efforts, led by businesses and residents who practice and tout it, rather than a mandate, although he did not rule that out.

“I’m pleased to see that Main Street businesses are taking the lead in some respects,” he said. “I think the best way to make sure that we’re all masked up is making sure that folks in all of our communities are saying that this is something that’s just acceptable.”

The governor, while acknowledging he has “concerns about where our cases are going,” said he’s confident in Montanans doing their part to avoid reinstituting restrictions. He also noted that Montana continues to have the lowest per-capita rate of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the continental U.S.

“I say this not to deemphasize the seriousness of new cases we’ve seen over the past few weeks, rather to underscore that we can still get a grasp on the virus in our state,” he said, adding that Montanans need to “look out for each other.”

Bullock said the six recent weddings, held in five counties, led to cases that impacted seven counties and at least two other states. The governor said evidence suggests the cases arose more from pre- and post-wedding festivities than the ceremonies themselves.

“It doesn’t appear that out of state brought it in, and in fact in some instances the virus may have been exported out of state,” he said.

More broadly, Bullock said the impact of out-of-state travelers on COVID-19 in Montana has remained relatively steady over the course of the Phase 2 reopening, accounting for about 8% of cases.

“Our biggest problem hasn’t been out of staters visiting Montana; it’s Montanans not taking all the steps we need to be doing to limit the transmission of COVID-19,” he said.

Bullock said 70 recent cases altogether are tied to group settings, including work settings and 15 cases linked to three bars in Gallatin and Yellowstone counties.

Northwest Montana health officials issued reminders this week about the risks associated with large gatherings and the need to take precautions, as both an attendee and a host. The warnings came on the eve of one of the biggest celebratory times of the year in Montana, during which revelers traditionally get together in group settings.

“We urge you to think critically about the events you attend,” Flathead City-County Health Department Health Officer Hillary Hanson said on July 1. “If gatherings are not abiding by social distancing or hygiene practices, consider leaving or altering your plans. We need to make smart decisions for ourselves, for our families, and for our community.”

The Lake County-CSKT COVID-19 Incident Command System, in partnership with St. Luke Community Healthcare and Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, sent out a public service announcement on July 1 reminding people of the usual Fourth of July safety measures regarding fireworks while adding: “But this year is unlike those past seasons and there is greater need for precautions.”

“A public social gathering does not require your attendance,” the Lake County officials stated. “You have the choice to avoid the known risk of crowd exposure.”

They added: “Let’s prevent our best times from triggering our worst times.”

Lake County officials praised the “thoughtful community leaders” who made the public-health decisions to cancel “beloved festivals, parades, celebrations and community events.”

“The Lake County-CSKT Unified Command Center applauds these efforts to protect the community,” the press released stated.

Between June 28 and July 1, Montana experienced its four highest single-day COVID-19 case totals, ranging from 49 to 67, although increases in testing have played a role, as evidenced by the state’s continued low positivity rate, which measures the ratio of positive tests compared to overall completed tests.

Even on the recent highest-count days, the state’s positivity rate ranged between roughly 1 and 3.7%, which is well below the national average of 7%, as of July 1, and far lower than states such as Florida, which has experienced recent days of 15-20% positivity rates. Still, Montana’s rates have been climbing from their lows in May.

In March and April, the state’s average positivity was 3% and then dropped down to 0.7% in May, according to a July 1 report released by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). June’s average positivity was 1% but “continues to rise,” the report states. The state’s overall positivity rate for all laboratory testing, with its ranging fluctuations, has averaged to about 2%, as of the July 1 report.

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