Flathead County has reached a critical juncture with surging COVID-19 cases. So far state and local leaders haven’t implemented new restrictions, although a proposal calls for heightened measures going into effect next month unless the county sees a sharp decline in cases.
The obligation to re-flatten the curve ultimately falls on us, the public. But recent evidence suggests we’re not taking the challenge seriously enough, and that personal beliefs and habits are trumping community spirit and responsibility.
No matter how you feel about masks, social distancing and the rest, if we don’t make efforts to reverse the current trend, people in power will. We will force their hand. Which is to say, if the prevention of death and sickness isn’t a sufficiently persuasive motivation to rethink behavior, then the avoidance of additional restrictions might be.
Yet another way of saying all of that: Nobody wants this to get worse, whether for health or economic reasons, but we have the power to make sure it doesn’t.
Gov. Steve Bullock has called on local leaders in COVID-19 hotspots to consider extra measures or stronger enforcement of current ones to stem the tide of rising cases, specifically calling out Flathead County.
Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist threw the ball back into Bullock’s court, telling the Beacon the “authority lies with the governor.” Bullock responded by saying it’s the county’s responsibility to ensure local enforcement of state directives.
Then the commissioners issued a statement last week that formally validated defiance of the governor’s face covering mandate by calling masks a personal choice, which undermines both the state-issued directive and recommendations from medical officials, including their own public health officer.
The commissioners went on to say they don’t have “legal grounds to mandate masks or other health mandates,” arguing the governor’s directive was for “health officials and the county attorneys, not the commissioners.” The commissioners, who are the county’s chief decision-makers and highest elected officials, are effectively disavowing their role in guiding the community through the pandemic.
The county health board is set to a discuss a proposal by the Flathead City-County Health Department to tighten restrictions on social gatherings and capacity at bars, restaurants and churches, set to go into effect in November barring a reversal in case numbers.
Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson has said she would seek approval from the health board and county commission on any new measure. Given the commissioners’ recent statements, their support of the currently proposed restrictions is uncertain.
Amid all the leadership disagreement and ambiguity, the pleas from medical professionals — local and statewide — are growing increasingly urgent. They are begging us to practice safety precautions, especially mask wearing, in order to keep people healthy and prevent business and school closures.
COVID fatigue is real. I fully understand the exhaustion. I’m tired of it. We all are. But, as Kalispell Regional Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Doug Nelson told me recently, “being tired of it doesn’t make it go away.”
What makes it go away, to the point we can all begin to breathe more freely again without imminent fears of accumulating deaths and business closures and strained hospitals, is following the simple health precautions. The onus is on us.