Whitefish COVID-19 Task Force Hopes Unified Message Will Help Slow Spread

Public and business leaders to create safety messaging as city opts against tighter restrictions with busy winter season on tap

By Andy Viano
Natalie Taquino and her son Patrick shop for new flip flops at Stumptown Snowboards in downtown Whitefish on July 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With options for containing the escalating COVID-19 outbreak in Flathead County dwindling, the city of Whitefish is hoping a coordinated appeal to its citizens’ better angels will succeed where government-mandated measures have not.

Members of the city council, school district, visitor’s bureau, medical community and an array of businesses have banded together to form the Whitefish COVID-19 Task Force in the hopes that a public-relations push can keep the town running during the impending ski season. The group has met twice since it was formed in late October, and Mayor John Muhlfeld, a member of the task force, said the first in-town and online messaging will be released in the next two to three weeks, just before Whitefish Mountain Resort opens on Dec. 10.

Whitefish has been more proactive than the rest of Flathead County in managing the virus — limiting access to hotels and short-term rentals in the spring, imposing a mask mandate before the governor did so statewide and closing bars early on Halloween weekend — but is still grappling with how to balance the safety of its residents and an economy that is dependent on steady streams of customers at hotels, bars and restaurants. Leaders there have generally avoided the kinds of baseless arguments over the efficacy of masks and the seriousness of COVID-19 that have plagued meetings at the county level, but have likewise resisted imposing stronger restrictions.

At a council meeting on Nov. 2, business owners argued that any measures beyond a current capacity limit of 75% would put them underwater and put the jobs of their employees in peril. Among those who spoke were Remington Bar owner Dave Sheeran, whose business was sued by the state over its failure to comply with Gov. Steve Bullock’s indoor mask mandate, and Buffalo Café owner Alex Maetzold, who has been vocally supportive of the mandate. Their agreement and the input of others on the financial realities of the last eight months helped keep councilors from rolling back maximum capacities to 50%.

Part of the difficulty in enacting stronger restrictions comes from an inability to enforce any COVID-related measures. Local law enforcement agencies, including in Whitefish, say they do not have the capacity to police things like mask wearing, and Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner has openly questioned the legality of pursuing a case against a non-compliant business. Five lawsuits filed by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services — including against Remington Bar — are pending in district court.

But the primary motivator for keeping the regulatory status quo in Whitefish is an understanding that restrictions without financial relief for businesses would be disastrous. Enter the task force, says Muhlfeld.

“What we’re trying to avoid, obviously, is going backwards. No one wants to go there,” he said. “Through this campaign effort we are looking for the community to step up so we can stay healthy and stay open.”

The specific messaging has not been crafted, but one of the chief arguments figures to be similar to pleas from public health officials, who say that in order for schools and businesses to stay open it’s incumbent on residents to wear a mask, keep a safe distance and not gather in large groups, especially indoors. Flathead Deputy Health Officer Kerry Nuckles, who has been critical of the county board of health’s inaction, called Whitefish’s task force a “great idea,” and Muhlfeld believes the we’re-all-in-this-together appeal will resonate with his community. Muhlfeld thinks Whitefish residents have done well to manage the virus so far, and he pointed to voluntary safety measures taken by some businesses as evidence that the community is willing to do its part.

According to the latest data from the health department, however, Whitefish has the third-highest per capita caseload in Flathead County with 58 active cases, and even if Whitefish’s public messaging is successful in town, no such initiatives are planned in the surrounding communities.

“While this is a locally launched effort, we certainly hope that we reach well beyond the municipal borders of Whitefish and we hope that we can serve as a model for other communities to come on board or develop their own campaign and strategies,” Muhlfeld said. “Given the lack of action from the health board, we felt that this was the most effective way to tackle this problem while going into the winter season.”

Flathead County reported a 104 new COVID-19 cases and 29 current hospitalizations on Nov. 9, with more than 1,100 cases active in the county. The coronavirus has killed 27 county residents since March.

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