Kalispell’s Majestic Valley Arena will shut its doors for at least the next month, voluntarily canceling a pair of upcoming events in an effort to slow the fast-growing COVID-19 outbreak in Flathead County.
General Manager Tim Harmon said he and the Parker family, the owners of the arena, made the decision based on conversations with Flathead County Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson and after hearing warnings from local leaders about the precariousness of the county’s current situation at a recent county health board meeting.
Flathead County reports more than 700 active cases of COVID-19 as of Oct. 19 and has averaged 69 new cases per day since the start of October. Twenty-three people have died as a result of the virus, and between 20 and 30 people have been hospitalized in the county since Oct. 7, numbers that Kalispell Regional Healthcare officials say are stressing the hospital.
“I would like to congratulate the Majestic Valley Arena for stepping up and helping us stop the community-wide spread of COVID,” St. James Robinson said. “I think they should be applauded for that.”
Harmon said the arena wanted “to do its part” to keep the community safe, even at a financial loss. The two canceled events — a Northern Rodeo Association rodeo Oct. 23-25 and the Holiday Extravaganza Nov. 13-15 — will not be rescheduled, and arena staff will face a reduction in hours, although Harmon said the Parker family has pledged to keep all staff on the payroll.
“It’s a major loss of revenue for a private business,” Harmon said. “This hurts us. If you can’t have an event, you’re not in business.”
Since the novel coronavirus reached Montana in mid-March, Majestic Valley Arena has been taking significant precautionary measures to confront the virus. Attendees at all events have had their temperatures taken upon arrival, capacity has shrunk from 7,000 to less than 2,000 to accommodate social distancing, the statewide mask mandate has been enforced, and additional cleaning and sanitation measures were put in place. Harmon has also submitted COVID-19 management plans to the county health department before each event, something recommended but not mandated.
“It’s difficult to do those things, quite frankly,” Harmson said. “It required extra staff, which, obviously, is extra cost. It requires extra materials, which is extra cost, and the diligence of staying on top of those situations. It takes extra effort.”
For Harmon and the Parkers, however, concern for public health trumped any financial considerations, and Harmon specifically mentioned the ripple effect the spike in cases could have on the community, with high caseloads potentially leading to school closures, which could lead to a reduction in the available workforce and in turn impact local businesses.
“We didn’t want to contribute to that in any way,” Harmon said. “In fact, we want to do our part to slow down the spike.”
Harmon was among dozens of people who gave public comment at a contentious Flathead City-County Board of Health meeting last week, and said the experts he heard from at that meeting — including an infectious disease expert and a local school superintendent — in part shaped the arena’s decision. Harmon was supportive of measures proposed by St. James Robinson and the health department to limit the spread of COVID-19, including an order that would have capped public gatherings at 500 people. The health board did not approve any new regulations.
“I was expecting that in the midst of a pandemic, based upon the request by the top health official in Flathead County asking the health board to take action, that some form of action would have been taken,” Harmon said.
In a press release issued on Monday, the county health department reiterated that many recent outbreaks are linked to social gatherings and large indoor events, and urged community members to take “personal action” to mitigate the virus’ spread in light of the board of health’s inaction.
“The increasing number of positive cases and the evidence of widespread community transmission have brought Flathead County to a point where tough decisions need to be made,” St. James Robinson wrote. “It is up to all of us to slow the spread.”
No outbreaks have been linked to events at Majestic Valley Arena, Harmon said, before making a plea of his own to the community.
“We ask that everyone do their part to keep our valley safe,” he said. “The better we do that the quicker we can all go back to being in business.”