The city of Whitefish is set to consider an emergency ordinance to enact temporary restrictions on certain business establishments as well as social gatherings over a two-day period spanning Halloween, citing concerns about the development of a potential COVID-19 “super-spreader” event.
In a 4-2 vote during its regular meeting on Oct. 19, council scheduled an emergency meeting for Oct. 26, when it will consider enacting the proposed measures and gather additional public input. The temporary restrictions could include reducing to 50% the capacities of bars, restaurants, distilleries, breweries, and casinos, which is more restrictive than the 75% capacity allowed under the state’s Phase II COVID-19 guidelines currently in place.
The proposed ordinance could also require establishments to close by 11:30 p.m. over the Halloween weekend, which is an hour earlier than what the current guidelines allow.
While council said the proposed restrictions would only apply to the holiday weekend, the concerns that led to the proposal were born of mounting frustration with what several council members and city staff characterized as a lack of leadership from the Flathead County Commission, the Flathead City-County Board of Health and the Flathead County attorney.
In response to the county’s intensifying COVID-19 outbreak, the health board on Oct. 15 rejected a proposal to limit the size of allowable gatherings to 500 people while striking down other proposed regulations without discussion. The health board opted for inaction despite the pleas of Flathead County’s health officer and the urging of medical experts. Meanwhile, the county’s three commissioners have publicly offered their support to residents who choose to ignore health guidelines, including wearing masks in public settings.
“We are the last line of defense in this whole thing and we need to do more,” Whitefish City Councilor Steve Qunell said, noting that health officials recently declared Whitefish a “hotspot” for COVID-19 after more than 20 students at the high school and middle school tested positive for the virus. “The county’s not going to do anything, no matter what we say and no matter how many letters we write. Everyone else has passed the buck to us, and as leaders in our community it’s time for us to stand up.”
“Are we going to lead, or are we going to follow the non-believers in the county?” Qunell added. “We need to be the adults in the room.”
On Friday, Oct. 23, Whitefish city administrators issued a press release calling for community input, encouraging members of the public to offer feedback both at the Oct. 26 emergency meeting and council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 2. The press released expressed disappointment in the health board’s recent decision.
“The city council and I are non-partisan, volunteer elected officials and are committed to governing our small town with transparency and public input,” Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld stated in the release. “During these challenging times, public input is paramount in our decision making process when considering public safety measures for the benefit of all of our citizens.”
In addition to the Halloween measures, council members and Muhlfeld are requesting feedback on the possible re-implementation of guidelines and restrictions imposed under the state’s Phase I directives, and said they want to hear from business owners about whether they support more stringent directives or have other ideas to share.
According to Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith, the degree of inaction at both the county and state levels has put the city of Whitefish in a challenging position as it grapples with surging cases and a dearth of enforcement authority.
“It’s really hard when the governor says it’s up to the county and the county says it’s not going to do anything,” Smith said. “Whitefish is a hotspot as schools report a significant number of new cases, and it’s becoming clear that bars and restaurants are issues. As soon as people start drinking, the masks come off, the social distancing goes away.”
Whitefish City Councilor Frank Sweeney accused the Flathead County commissioners of “sticking their heads in the sand” and the Flathead County attorney of “malfeasance.”
“They’re refusing to do their jobs, and it’s wrong,” Sweeney said. “Now we have an explosion of cases and another super-spreader event potentially coming up in a week.”
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