Flathead Health Department Will Not Approve Events Larger Than 25 People

With new cases still surging, health officer says organizers have been unable to enforce social distancing and mandatory masking at events; arts and crafts fair at county fairgrounds still scheduled for this weekend

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

The Flathead City-County Health Department (FCCHD) announced it will not provide written approval for any events of more than 25 people in an effort to contain the ongoing surge of new COVID-19 infections, a largely symbolic measure that will not stop at least one large event from proceeding this weekend.

The proclamation comes days after Gov. Steve Bullock implemented new statewide restrictions, including a ban on public gatherings of at least 25 people when social distancing is not possible. The Flathead health department took that one step further, saying it would not approve any events regardless of whether or not the organizers submit a plan for keeping visitors separate and enforcing mask-wearing.

“Although written social distancing and masking plans can be well thought out, it’s been difficult to enforce those plans,” Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson wrote in a department release. “We’ve seen multiple occurrences where the plan is good but the execution of the plan is poor. For this reason, the Flathead City-County Health Department does not recommend hosting or attending large events and will no longer provide written approvals for events over 25.”

The announcement is not an official health order and represents only a strong suggestion, as event organizers are not required to submit plans before hosting large events and department approval is not needed to host such gatherings. The governor’s latest directive, which took effect on Friday, says organizers of large events “should” consult with their local health department and that the directive applies to gatherings of more than 25 people “where social distancing is not possible or observed.”

As of Monday, two large events at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in the coming weeks are still moving forward as scheduled. The Christmas at the Fairgrounds arts and crafts fair is Nov. 27-29 inside the Trade Center building, while the Up in Arms Gun Show is Dec. 5-6. Fairgrounds Manager Mark Campbell said the facility has “no plans for immediate cancellations on any events.”

Lindsay Mena, president of Artists and Craftsmen of the Flathead, said her group’s Christmas at the Fairgrounds event had previously submitted a plan to the health department and that the plan was approved on Nov. 6. To maintain social distancing, the fair will expand aisles to 23 feet wide, mandate one-way customer traffic flow, offer extra spacing between vendor booths and enact a limit of one shopper or shopper family per booth at any time. Organizers also say they will have several sanitization measures in place and require attendees to wear masks.

“We feel that our event more than meets the requirements for social distancing,” Mena wrote in an email to the Beacon. “We have many vendors who have worked very hard to put this event together in a safe and health-conscious way.”

St. James Robinson, however, said her department’s position has changed since the event was first approved, a caveat allowed for in the initial approval, because the number of COVID-19 cases in the county has exploded since that time and because organizers of previous events have repeatedly failed in executing their plans.

“We can’t in good conscience say, ‘yeah, your plan looks good,’ when we know they can’t enforce it,” she said. “Our recommendation will be that they do not go forward with the event.”

The health department had not contacted Mena as of Monday morning, but Mena indicated she had no intention of canceling, arguing that providing an opportunity for small-business vendors to sell their products at the fair only levels the playing field as big box stores remain open with mixed enforcement of social distancing rules.

“We believe supporting super-small businesses is more important now than ever, and we don’t want to deprive these hard-working vendors of an opportunity to sell their handmade/homemade items, especially since many of them rely heavily on the income they will earn this weekend to get them through the winter,” Mena wrote.

Some items at the fair will be available via an online sale starting at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. A total of 18 vendors will appear on a Facebook Live video each night to share items that customers can purchase on a first-come, first-serve basis by commenting on the video.

Kalispell’s other large indoor venue, the privately owned Majestic Valley Arena, announced last month that it was canceling events in October and November in an effort to slow community spread of COVID-19, and an arena cross event scheduled for Dec. 11-12 has also been canceled.

Bullock’s restrictions on public gatherings do not apply to places of worship and K-12 schools, and the 25-person limit also excludes restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos, although those businesses must now operate at 50% capacity and close by 10 p.m.

The FCCHD echoed Bullock’s comments on private gatherings as well, with the governor urging residents “in the strongest terms” to avoid get-togethers with 15 or more people, including in the home, something particularly noteworthy with Thanksgiving just days away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last week that “the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with.”

Flathead County recorded more than 1,000 new COVID-19 infections between Nov. 14-20 and the department announced that three more residents died from the virus last week, bringing the countywide total to 30. More than 2,500 new infections have been confirmed this month, 300 more than in the entire month of October and nearly three times as many new cases as were reported in September.

In Monday’s release, St. James Robinson once again pleaded with the community to take the virus seriously and stay home to keep each other safe.

“The influx of new cases in the past several weeks is alarming,” she wrote. “We are all experiencing COVID-19 fatigue and many of us miss our loved ones, but gathering with non-household members may contribute to widespread transmission of COVID-19. This virus isn’t going away anytime soon, and we need to remain diligent in our efforts to mitigate the spread.”

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