Flathead County, Whitefish to Consider New COVID-19 Restrictions

The county health board will consider limiting indoor gatherings, while Whitefish officials are seeking input on measures to curb spread of coronavirus

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

As Flathead County’s health officer prepares to introduce a revised proposal to limit indoor gatherings, city officials in Whitefish have entered discussions of their own over whether to tighten restrictions on local businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Earlier this week, the Whitefish City Council sent a letter to the Flathead City-County Health Board outlining its frustration “with the lack of leadership and acknowledgement of science on the board,” and urging board members to reconsider their Oct. 15 decision rejecting new measures.

“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.”

On Friday afternoon, the health board posted an agenda for its emergency meeting on Nov. 2, when members will convene to discuss a new Health Officer Order that would limit indoor gatherings to 500 people, while providing exceptions to traditional places of worship.

The proposed health order by Tamalee St. James Robinson, interim health officer for the Flathead City-County Health Department, closely mirrors one of her previous recommendations that the board rejected, voting 5-3 at its Oct. 15 meeting in a move that frustrated some community members and elicited calls for action from Whitefish city officials.

The agenda includes an open letter to Flathead County residents from the board of health acknowledging intense divisions over how local governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the adoption of requirements to limit the spread, such as wearing masks in public settings.

“For those of you who do not trust these recommendations, we know that we are probably not going to change your minds. What we ask is that you realize your individual choices may have consequences for others around you — small inconveniences multiplied across the population can have significant impact on the prevalence of disease in our community,” the letter states. “We all want this pandemic to be over, but pretending it does not exist will not help to keep our schools open and our businesses thriving. Please, practice strict personal safety measures, limit gathering in groups, treat others with respect, and be courteous to those around you.”

The Whitefish City Council did adopt some temporary measures to curb the spread of coronavirus during Halloween weekend, when bars operating in city limits must close an hour early, but the council’s agenda for Nov. 2 includes the consideration of longer-term restrictions.

St. James Robinson said the growth of new cases has slowed in recent weeks, but the volume of patients testing positive for COVID-19 is still taxing county health resources and hospital staff. She attributed much of the continued case growth to large gatherings like weddings and trade shows, as well as social events like dinner parties.

Although the past two weeks reflected a slight downturn in the number of new COVID-19 cases locally, Montana health officials reported 1,063 new cases of COVID-19 on Oct. 30, marking a new record, while Flathead County officials confirmed 140 new cases, which is by far the largest single-day total since the outbreak began.

The local health department’s data showed a weekly rate of positive cases at just above 12% Oct. 24-30, which is down about a percentage point from the previous week. The data did not include the addition of the 140 confirmed cases on Friday.

In Whitefish, 24 students are currently in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, with 10 staff members testing positive, according to St. James Robinson, while the county on Thursday reported its 27th death related to the virus.

“Our main goal is to stop spread of COVID-19, keep our schools and businesses open and prevent our healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed,” St. James Robinson said.

On Oct. 29, Whitefish convened its newly configured COVID-19 Task Force, which consists of community stakeholders including local school representatives and arose from “a shared recognition that Whitefish and the Flathead County is in a crisis situation and more work must be done to stop the current spiking of COVID-19,” according to a city press release.

Ultimately, the purpose of the task force is to stop or slow spread of COVID-19 in Whitefish so that schools and businesses can stay open, city officials stated. Priorities include protecting those most vulnerable in the community, supporting stressed health care systems, and keeping frontline and service workers at their jobs.

“This is about community health, and sustaining the Whitefish economy,” stated Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld, who serves as a member of the task force. “If we are diligent, we can keep our community safe and our town open.”

The number of COVID-19 cases in Flathead County has been doubling every 28-30 days, St. James Robinson said, while hospitals in more rural areas of the state are diverting patients to Kalispell Regional Healthcare.

“We have been taking patients from Browning, Hamilton, Butte, Glasgow, Malta, all across the state,” she said.

To register for the Flathead City-County Health Board’s Zoom meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. on Nov. 2, as well as to submit public comment, visit its website here. For more information on how to submit public comments to Whitefish City Council prior to its meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Nov. 2, visit the city’s website here.

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