Health Board Rejects COVID-19 Restrictions at Emergency Meeting

Board once again votes down proposal to limit public gatherings to 500 people

By Micah Drew
The Flathead City-County Health Department building as pictured on Sept. 23, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Two weeks after rejecting a nearly identical proposal, the Flathead City-County Board of Health again opted to take no action in response to the county’s intensifying COVID-19 outbreak at an emergency meeting on Monday, voting down a measure limiting the size of allowable gatherings to 500 people.

The proposal, which was altered since the last meeting to only apply to indoor events, would have limited events and gatherings to no more than 500 people through the middle of January. The revised proposal, which exempted traditional worship services, was denied after the board voted 4-4. Board members Dr. Annie Bukacek, Ardis Larsen, Ronalee Skees, and County Commissioner Pam Holmquist voted down the measure, in part due to questions about the ability to enforce the measures.

Dr. Peter Heyboer, Kalispell City Councilor Kyle Waterman, Roger Noble and board chair Bill Burg voted for the restrictions.

“I don’t think I can agree to something that’s basically unenforceable,” Holmquist said. “I think putting a rule in place is not the direction we should be going.”

Before the vote, Burg compared the “reasonable restrictions” to requiring hunters to wear orange in order to “save lives,” and further maintained that in no way was the health department infringing on citizens’ rights.

Prior to the meeting, at least 233 members of the public submitted written comment to the board in addition to a dozen that spoke during the Zoom call, most against any additional restrictions in the county.

In addition to discussion on the proposal, the board announced the formation of a new COVID-19 committee that would be led by Heyboer, a Kalispell Regional Healthcare physician, and Deputy Health Officer Kerry Nuckles spoke about plans for the vaccination phase of the outbreak.

“It’s going to take a lot of staff hours to make vaccines available,” Nuckles said, noting that the state would be providing vaccines to the county at no cost once it was approved. “The demands on personnel will increase as we will keep doing case investigations and do mass deployment of a vaccine.”

As of Nov. 2, Flathead County had 944 active cases, including 526 new cases since Oct. 26, and has reported 27 deaths due to the novel coronavirus.

The county health department’s community indicators as of Oct. 29 showed five consecutive weeks of an average new case rate of greater than 50 per 100,000 residents people in the county, including two weeks over 70. The county also reported that capacity to conduct contact monitoring was critical.