Bullock Puts Onus on County Leaders, Communities to Stop Spread of Virus

Governor tells counties to ‘stand up and do more’ as COVID-19 cases climb steadily, calls out Flathead County specifically

By Tristan Scott
Shoppers wearing face masks stroll around downtown Whitefish on July 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Amid a sustained surge in transmissions of COVID-19 across the state, and facing questions about whether local control measures are sufficient to promote compliance with restrictions and guidelines to curb the spread of the virus, Gov. Steve Bullock urged county leaders to “stand up and do more,” calling on Flathead County specifically.

“If the leaders in Flathead County aren’t discussing additional steps that they should be considering, then they are not serving their communities as well as they could,” Bullock said during an afternoon press conference.

The governor delivered his message on the same day that Montana health officials reported 733 new cases of COVID-19, again smashing the record for daily cases, with Flathead and Yellowstone counties accounting for more than 30 percent of the active caseload the state has indexed in the past two weeks, or about 800 cases.

The acceleration in cases prompted Flathead health officials on Monday to reiterate the urgency of slowing the spread of COVID-19 in local communities, which has continued to gain purchase while straining resources in the health department and threatening to overwhelm hospital capacity.

“Flathead County has reached a critical point in the fight against COVID-19,” Tamalee St. James Robison, interim health officer at the Flathead City-County Health Department, stated on Oct. 5. “We are seeing a surge of new cases and these are putting a strain on our healthcare system as well as our public investigation team. If we as a community do not step up to take action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 additional control measures will need to be implemented.”

In Bullock’s remarks on Wednesday, he said it’s clear what directives need to be followed in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 — social distance, wear a mask, stay home if you are ill, wash your hands, avoid interaction with those outside your immediate family and social circle, stay away from large gatherings, and avoid interaction with those under isolation or quarantine.

And while he applauded businesses and community leaders who are effectively adopting and promoting those measures, he chastened some local jurisdictions and urged them to consider more restrictive actions.

“Local government has the tools to do so, and locally elected leaders have to be standing up to do more,” Bullock said. “All the tools are there to limit the spread and transmission if we will only continue adhering to those tools and using those tools effectively.”

Eight days ago, Bullock encouraged local authorities in hot spot areas to consider decisive action like closing bars and restaurants, and singled out Flathead County as one of a half-dozen in which community spread was growing at an alarming rate.

In response, Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who also sits on the county board of health, wondered why the governor did not implement new restrictions himself, and St. James Robinson said she would make no decision on new measures without the support of the three commissioners and the health board.

“I would be happy to call them,” Bullock said. “But it doesn’t make sense to say that I am going to put restrictions in place in two counties. There are directives as far as crowd sizes and community gatherings, and if businesses aren’t following the statewide directives, well, it’s up to the local jurisdictions to actually enforce those directives along the way. I have never met anyone in Flathead County government who has asked me to take over their government, so while I continue to offer local communities our support, it can’t all be solved from Helena.”