News & Features

As Flathead Cases Rise, Whitefish Considers Emergency Mask Ordinance

Local health officials reported a dozen new cases over a three-day period

State health officials reported 85 new cases of COVID-19 on July 13, including nine in Flathead County, prompting Whitefish city officials to propose an emergency ordinance requiring the use of face coverings in public settings.

The new figures come amid a statewide surge and arrived just two days after Flathead County confirmed three residents had contracted the virus, pushing the local three-day total to a dozen new cases. The total number of known active cases in Flathead County now sits at 25, not including the eight non-resident cases that health officials are monitoring, a figure that also continues to trend upward as summer tourism gains momentum.

Also over the weekend, the popular Great Northern Bar in Whitefish announced it was temporarily closing after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. The employee last worked at the bar July 5 and is now under quarantine.

“We are working closely with the Mayor, the City of Whitefish, and the Flathead County Health Department to continue to keep the community’s health at the forefront of all of the decisions we make,” the bar said in a statement on its Facebook page.

Last week, Whitefish adopted a mask resolution urging, though not mandating, that residents and visitors wear cloth face coverings in public settings. On Monday, city officials called a special session scheduled for Tuesday, July 14 at 10 a.m. to consider adopting an emergency ordinance requiring the use of face coverings in public spaces to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The new mandate would equip city officials with enforcement authority and come with penalties for individuals or businesses who violate the ordinance.

Prior to adopting the resolution through a unanimous vote on July 6, council members said they reviewed 528 letters and considered comments from members of the public who attended the meeting in person.

The majority of those who attended the July 6 meeting opposed the resolution, appearing before council members unmasked and imploring city leaders to reject the proposal. Because capacity at City Hall is limited due to COVID-19 guidelines, city staff encouraged the public to submit input in writing.

The majority of the public input gathered prior to the meeting, or about 67 percent, supported adopting a formal resolution, city officials said. Some of that input came from business owners who requested a mask mandate

Kristin Tabor, who owns Stumptown Snowboards in downtown Whitefish, said she requires customers wear masks inside her store and provides free disposable masks at the 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.”

Those who opposed the resolution said it would have a chilling effect on tourism-dependent businesses and infringe on individual liberties.

Members of the public who wish to provide input on the emergency ordinance under consideration should email the city clerk, Michelle Howke, at mhowke@Cityofwhitefish.org by 9:30 a.m. on July 14, prior to the meeting.

An emergency ordinance requires a two-thirds vote of the whole city council for passage and remains effective for no more than 90 days. According to the Whitefish ordinance, if passed it would take effect July 15 and will remain in place for one month unless repealed beforehand

As proposed, all businesses must require employees and customers to wear face coverings in areas open to the general public. The ordinance makes some exceptions, including for children under the age of 12, for individuals who can’t wear a face covering due to a medical or mental health condition, for individuals with a developmental disability, for individuals exercising or swimming, and for individuals who are seated at a table or the bar of a restaurant while eating or drinking.

Violation of the ordinance can result in the suspension or revocation of a business license.

Other cities and counties in Montana have adopted similar ordinances, including nearby Missoula, and a coalition of state chambers of commerce, marketing organizations and tourism bureaus recently joined to encourage the use of masks to protect the health and viability of tourism regions.

“In order for us to continue reopening or remain open as a state, it is imperative that we slow the spread of COVID-19,” according to a July 10 letter signed by 23 tourism organizations, including Discover Kalispell, Explore Whitefish, and the chambers of commerce in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

“As residents of Montana, we must set the example for our community and our visitors — wear masks when social distancing is not possible, whether indoors or out,” the letter states.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Flathead County has confirmed 75 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths.

Statewide, the total number of cases has reached 1,843, with the state Department of Health and Human Services reporting 936 active cases. Of those, 28 people are currently hospitalized and 32 have died.

Thirty-seven of the new cases added July 13 were in Yellowstone County, while 19 were in Lincoln County, where a disproportionate number of residents suffer from lung disease due to asbestos exposure from the now-defunct vermiculite mine.

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