Whitefish to Consider Resolution Encouraging Use of Masks

As new cases surge, resort community joins other Montana cities and counties in considering “mask mandate” to prevent spread of COVID-19

By Tristan Scott
Quinten Joos works at the Mountain Berry Bowls stand in downtown Kalispell on July 2, 2020. Beacon file photo

As states and local municipalities across the nation report a rise in new cases of COVID-19 and economies struggle to remain open, the city of Whitefish is poised to adopt a resolution “strongly encouraging” the use of cloth masks or face coverings in public spaces.

According to city officials, the proposed resolution was drafted in response to dozens of email requests by business owners and local residents, as well as after meetings between city staff and stakeholders to discuss the need for front-line employees, visitors, and locals to wear a mask in public when social distancing is not possible.
“The input received has been overwhelmingly positive for the city to take formal action,” according to an email from Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith seeking public comment on the proposal.

The text of the proposed resolution states that everyone “should” wear face coverings when indoors in public settings or communal spaces, including parks and sidewalks, but stops short of issuing a mandate or health order like the ones introduced in states like California, Washington and Oregon.

If the resolution isn’t adopted on a voluntary basis in Whitefish, city officials say they will consider issuing a mandate.

“If the city of Whitefish determines the above guidelines are not being adhered to, the city will consider passing an ordinance which will require that such guidelines be adhered to and provide penalties for non-compliance,” the resolution states.

The resolution makes exceptions for children under the age of 6; individuals for whom a mask would cause impairment due to a physical or mental condition; individuals working in a profession in which the use of a mask would not be compatible with their duties; individuals exercising if a mask or face covering would interfere with their breathing; and individuals seated at a restaurant or bar while eating or drinking.

The Whitefish City Council is slated to consider the resolution at its July 6 meeting, and city staff encouraged the public to read the proposal and comment on it by emailing mhowke@cityofwhitefish.org or by delivering a letter to City Hall by 4 p.m. on Monday, July 6.

Communities across Montana are considering similar requirements and resolutions on masks, including Missoula and Bighorn counties, both of which have seen spikes in new cases of COVID-19.

The Whitefish resolution has curried favor among local business owners, and proponents are increasingly pointing to new studies showing the use of masks and face coverings is among the most effective ways to reduce person-to-person spread of coronavirus. In one study, a team of researchers led by a Texas A&M University professor found that not wearing a facemask dramatically increases a person’s chances of being infected by the COVID-19 virus.

In Whitefish, calls for a “mask mandate” have gained urgency as the small resort community experiences a groundswell of out-of-state visitors, and supporters of the city’s resolution include small business owners who wish to remain open while also strengthening protective health measures for vulnerable staff members, as well as the community at large.

“Now, more than ever, our community needs to come together and require that everyone wear face masks in our town,” Denise Magstadt, owner of Imagination Station in downtown Whitefish, wrote to council members and Mayor John Muhlfeld. “It is very difficult to keep my staff comfortable with all of the tourists and other locals that do not wear face masks. We are on the front line and we compliment the people that come into the store wearing masks and using my hand sanitizer provided at the door. Customers also thank me for providing hand sanitizer and use it regularly, coming and going. It is difficult to enforce customers to wear masks if we do not all come together and make it happen.”

In comments to city council, business owners also stressed that the widespread use of masks could stave off a second round of closures and restrictions, thereby avoiding another staggering economic blow, a sentiment echoed by Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday as he urged Montanans to “mask up.”

“We don’t have to be like other states and take steps backward, and one of the easiest steps to avoid that is to make wearing a mask a habit that is normalized,” Bullock said, noting that Montana has added 222 new positive cases of COVID-19 this week alone, surpassing more than 1,000 cases statewide. “It is becoming increasingly clear that wearing a mask is an easy way to stop the spread.”

Todd O’Hair, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said his organization this week joined with prominent business leaders to encourage the increase in the usage of face masks, a measure he said is necessary if the state hopes to avoid the reopening rollbacks occurring in states like Texas, Florida and Arizona.

Kristin Tabor, who owns Stumptown Snowboards in downtown Whitefish, said she provides free disposable masks at the store entrance, but the price of accommodating so many non-masked customers is expensive.

“It has been shocking to see the number of people coming through our door. While it is nice to have the business open, the lack of face masks is not good,” Tabor wrote to city councilors in a letter supporting adoption of the resolution. “We feel if there was a city-wide requirement for face masks to be worn in public indoor places we could put up a unified front as a town and people would adapt to wearing them as routine.”

Marilyn Nelson, the retired owner of Nelson’s Hardware in Whitefish, said masks are a simple, effective measure to safeguard residents and businesses, and the resolution aligns with the “bold and decisive action” the city government has shown in response to the pandemic.

“We don’t want to let our guard down and have to resume lock-down,” according to Nelson’s letter to council. “It is incumbent for tour city to continue to be proactive and follow the science that demonstrates that lives will be saved if everyone wears masks. So let’s make it happen.”

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