News & Features

Health Department Proposes New Restrictions if COVID-19 Outbreak Continues to Spread

Measures would include limiting gatherings to 25 people or fewer, reducing restaurant, bar and church capacity; board of health will review proposal on Thursday

The Flathead City-County Health Department has outlined several new restrictions that would go into effect next month if the county does not see a sharp decrease in the number of new cases of COVID-19 by that time.

In a proposal prepared for the Flathead City-County Board of Health, the department ran through a litany of troubling indicators of the virus’ recent spread and laid out a Control Measure Plan that would go into effect next month if approved by the board. If the number of new cases exceeds 375 (about 53 cases per day) for the week of Oct. 26 to Nov. 1, the following restrictions would go into place beginning at 5 p.m. on Nov. 4:

  • Social gatherings will be limited to no more than 25 people, regardless of the ability to socially distance
  • The capacity at bars, restaurants and churches will be set at 25%
  • Any business that sells alcohol would have to close by 10 p.m.

The order would not include schools or school activities, which would continue operating under existing guidelines. The order would remain in place for at least one month.

The most recent seven-day period in which data was available in Flathead County showed 522 cases were confirmed from Oct. 3-9, well above of the number required to implement the proposed measures. In the proposal, FCCHD noted that the number of cases reported has increased “dramatically” since the start of September and has coincided with a rise in hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.

Ten long-term care facilities are currently in the midst of outbreaks and unable to accept transfers of residents, the department wrote, stressing hospital capacity, and additional outbreaks in the county in the last month have been linked to 14 restaurants and bars, at least four churches, three political events and two trade shows.

The county proposal also directly confronts two talking points frequently used by those opposed to COVID-19 restrictions, including outspoken board of health member Dr. Annie Bukacek, and details the stress the department has been under as it struggles to keep up with mounting caseloads.

In the FCCHD proposal, the county health department compares the severity of COVID-19 to influenza and car accidents, writing that the county’s 23 deaths from the coronavirus are more than the 19 combined influenza deaths in the county in the last four years. Additionally, the 23 COVID-19 deaths in the last seven months surpass the number of fatalities from auto accidents in the county in 2017 (11) and 2018 (9) combined. Furthermore, the department confirmed that 11 staff members have been reassigned from their normal job duties to address the pandemic and that 22 temporary part-time staff are chipping in, although the department is still “unable to find assistance in a fast enough manner to address the large increase in cases.”

The proposed plan will be discussed during the Oct. 15 board of health meeting, which will be held via Zoom video conference starting at 1 p.m. Public comment can be submitted via email at BoardofHealthAdmin@flathead.mt.gov with your name and city. Pre-registration is required to attend the meeting and can be arranged by emailing the same address before 11 a.m. on Oct. 15.

A separate measure to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus at large events is also on the agenda. That measure would immediately limit the size of any public event to 500 or fewer people and would require anyone holding an event of between 50 and 499 people submit a “detailed plan” to the county health department 10 days prior to the event, addressing what protective actions organizers would be taking. That measure, if approved, would go into effect on Oct. 15 and remain in place through the end of the year. Currently, event organizers are recommended to submit a plan but not required to do so.

These proposals come on the heels of a contentious week of back-and-forth between Gov. Steve Bullock and the Flathead County commissioners. Bullock asked for hot spot counties to take action to mitigate the rapid spread of the virus, specifically mentioning Flathead County, and the county commissioners responded by deflecting any responsibility for managing the virus and offering support for residents who choose to ignore directives offered by the governor’s office like wearing a face covering in public.

Flathead County reported a record 96 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, Oct. 9. As of that date, 500 cases in the county were active and 21 people were hospitalized.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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