Whitefish Enacts Halloween Restrictions on Bars, Restaurants

City council imposes emergency ordinance to prevent 'superspreader event,' seeks public input on future action

By Tristan Scott
Shoppers wearing face masks stroll around downtown Whitefish on July 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Whitefish City Council on Monday adopted an emergency ordinance to tweak bar and restaurant operations over Halloween weekend, ordering late-night establishments to close an hour early in an effort to prevent a potential COVID-19 “superspreader event.”

As originally proposed, the emergency ordinance would have also reduced to 50% the maximum customer capacity allowed in bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and casinos. However, council passed an amendment Monday evening that allows those establishments to operate at 75% capacity, which is what Montana’s statewide directive allows under Phase II guidelines.

After hearing strong public support during the two-hour hearing, council ultimately approved the amended emergency ordinance on a 5-1 vote, with members acknowledging that while the temporary restrictions weren’t substantially different than those already in place, it may send a message to area businesses who continue to resist compliance.

“In my mind it’s not quite as much about the occupancy percentage as it is about getting folks to comply with the regulations generally,” Councilor Ben Davis said.

The ordinance will only apply to Whitefish businesses on Oct. 30-31, during which time bars must close at 11:30 p.m. as opposed to 12:30 a.m. The businesses must prohibit individuals from sitting or standing at bars or counters, must limit seating to six individuals per table and must continue to comply with all social distancing and face covering requirements under the state directives.

The ordinance also gives broader enforcement authority to the city, which may issue fines and citations or pull business licenses in the event that an establishment violates the measure.

However, Mayor John Muhlfeld, who characterized the measure as “window dressing,” said the ordinance will be difficult to enforce and places a significant burden on the local police department.

“I’m not in favor of legislating just for the sake of legislating,” Muhlfeld said. “We are asking our enforcement wing to perform a very heavy lift on very short notice, and I question how effective this will really be.”

City officials convened the special session amid concerns that Halloween weekend, which traditionally involves raucous celebrations and capacity crowds in Whitefish’s downtown bars, as well as bar-hopping costume contests, could lead to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“Halloween does present a clear and present danger to not just our community but the county as a whole,” Councilor Andy Feury said, adding that he initially planned to oppose the ordinance but was swayed by the public support.

The new restrictions also come on the heels of the state’s decision to bring enforcement action against five Flathead County businesses that officials allege have failed to comply with Gov. Steve Bullock’s directives, particularly his order that employees and patrons wear face coverings indoors.

Meanwhile, Flathead County officials have refused to take any action to implement additional measures as cases surge across the region, a point that Whitefish council members raised repeatedly, clearly rankled by the degree of inaction.

Lauren Oscilowski, owner of Spotted Bear Spirits, said the ordinance wasn’t entirely equitable, particularly as it applied to businesses already taking the public health measures seriously. She’s endured steep cuts to her bottom line all summer, including a 50% drop in revenue this July over the same month last year, a slump she attributed entirely to the steps she’s taken to comply with state directive and limit her operations.

“We can implement further restrictions but if it isn’t enforced it isn’t going to make a difference, and there are a few businesses in town, bars and restaurants, that aren’t taking it seriously,” she said. “At Spotted Bear we have taken this very seriously. And Flathead County is a large area, and Kalispell is very different than Whitefish. I would be very curious to see how much of the county’s spread is happening in Whitefish compared to the rest of the county.”

Whitefish City Councilor Frank Sweeney chastened the Flathead County Attorney and Flathead County Commissioners for not taking action against businesses that have had repeated complaints against them, calling their inaction “malfeasance.”

“I am very sensitive to the burdens that most of our downtown businesses have taken on. The reason for this ordinance is not because most of our businesses are not following it, it’s those that are violating it consistently. It’s those businesses that are killing other people’s businesses,” Sweeney said. “They are the ones that are responsible for this bloom, they are the ones who are ignoring the health guidance, and that frustrates me to no end.”

Tamalee St. James Robinson, interim health officer at the Flathead City-County Health Department, commended the city’s approach to trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 during a high-risk weekend.

St. James Robinson encouraged business owners to contact the Flathead County Attorney to encourage enforcement.

“We have the complaint system, we have the process,” she said. “And if that process is followed, the bad actors are the ones that will pay the price, not the ones who are following the rules.”

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.

Meanwhile, the Whitefish City Council on Oct. 26 sent a letter to the Flathead County Health Board urging its members to reconsider their Oct. 15 decision rejecting new measures.

“Your decision was in disregard of the health and well-being of the citizens you purport to represent. We ask you to reconsider and support our city in preventing the spread of this disease. We must unify rather than continue to divide,” council members wrote in a joint letter.

“Your inability to enact vital ordinances to keep our county healthy puts communities such as ours in the position of having to consider enacting restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 without any county support,” the letter states. “Again, we must unify. We need a clear, coordinated approach to bring this surge under control rather than a patchwork of regulations and enforcement.”

The letter concluded, “Please be assured that as a city, we will do whatever it takes to protect our residents and visitors. We invite you to step up to the plate, and look forward to productive discourse for the sake of community health and economic sustainability in Flathead County.”

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