Flathead County Commissioners Issue Statement Deflecting Criticism as COVID-19 Spreads

Commissioners assert they lack the legal standing to implement measures to control spread, say choice to follow governor’s directives is up to individual citizens

By Andy Viano
The Flathead County Health Department performs COVID-19 testing at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Oct. 7, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The three Flathead County commissioners responded to pointed comments from Gov. Steve Bullock by issuing a statement on Thursday afternoon that redirected his call for action in hot spot counties and offered a tacit endorsement of residents who are refusing to abide by the governor’s directive to wear masks in public.

The statement was issued one day after Gov. Bullock held a press conference and addressed large outbreaks in Flathead and Yellowstone counties, saying that directives, including those regarding allowable crowd sizes and wearing masks in public, are “up to the local jurisdictions to actually enforce.”

The commissioners issued their statement because the governor’s comments needed to be “clarified.”

“The governor’s directive was to health officials and county attorneys, not the commissioners,” they wrote. “The commissioners do not have legal grounds to mandate masks or other health mandates.”

No practical enforcement of the mandates is in place in Flathead County, where businesses are asked to police their own establishments regarding masks and large public gatherings are not required to be pre-approved, and the Flathead City-County Health Department has focused its efforts on case investigations and contact tracing as the outbreak has intensified in the last several weeks. The health department itself is a consolidated government entity that does not fall directly under the county commissioners, although a board that includes Commissioner Pam Holmquist conducts oversight of the public health officer, the health department’s top official, and several other board members are also appointed by the county commission.

Flathead County is currently at its highest level of hospitalizations (22) and active cases (500-plus) since the beginning of the pandemic, and has reported an average of more than 65 new cases per day this month. Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson has pleaded with residents to wears masks and comply with the other recommendations but has thus far stopped short of implementing any stronger measures, saying she would only do so with the approval of the county commission and the board of health.

The commissioners’ Thursday statement went on to “support the Constitutional rights of Montanans” by declining to recommend residents follow the governor’s directives. Commissioner Randy Brodehl is quoted in the statement offering support for those who have ignored public health recommendations and not worn masks.

“Whether you choose to mask up or make a different choice should belong to our citizens, not the governor,” Brodehl said.

“We recommend citizens choose who they patronize and what protections they use for themselves,” the statement continues. “At the same time we respect and support the rights of businesses to make good decisions about how they should operate for the safety of their employees, patrons, and their success as a business. Our citizens can then make decisions about who and how they will patronize our local businesses.”

Without offering specifics, the statement did “recommend (businesses) follow the guidelines provided by” the public health officer, who has repeatedly reminded residents that wearing a mask can significantly mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

In closing, Commissioner Phil Mitchell offered some support for those on the frontlines battling the virus, which has killed 23 residents in Flathead County as of Thursday, saying “the commissioners thank all of the health community for their commitment to meet the needs of our community as we work through these tough times.”

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