Large gathering ban fails for second time

Daily Inter Lake | November 4, 2020 2:35 AM

A public health order that would have placed a 500-person cap on indoor events and gatherings in Flathead County failed on a tie vote during a virtual Flathead City-County Board of Health meeting on Monday.

The decision comes about two weeks after the board voted to take no action on a very similar order that would have limited all events, indoor and outdoor, to 500 people.

The new order would have gone into effect at 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 3 and remained in place until Jan. 31, 2021 and would have, among other measures, also required event planners to submit COVID-19 safety plans to the health department for gatherings ranging from 50 to 499 individuals.

Health Board members Pete Heyboer, Kyle Waterman, Bill Burg and Roger Noble voted in favor of the order and members Pam Holmquist, Ardis Larson, Ronalee Skees and Annie Bukacek voted against it. While three members felt the cap was a reasonable ask of Flathead County residents and businesses, others said the order would be greatly challenged by the public and took issue with how it would be enforced — a responsibility local law enforcement officials have said will not fall to them and is one that the already-strained health department cannot effectively take on.

“This puts the onus on that organizer to follow that safety plan. It really allows our community partners to proceed with their events if they can do it in a safe way that does not place people at risk,” said Heyboer, one of the board’s two actively practicing physicians. “Five-hundred people, that’s a very conservative number for sure.”

But board member Ronalee Skees and others pressed board members and Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner on who would be tasked with counting the heads at events and what the consequences would be, should that ceiling be breached.

“I don’t want to tell my kids they are going to get in trouble for something if they don’t know what that trouble will be,” Skees said.

Ahner did not provide a straight answer, but said ramifications could include measures such as injunctions, fines for repeat offenders and/or criminal charges, though he said those measures would likely require “an intensive use of resources.” He also did not say whether his office would take on enforcement duties, but questioned whether the order in question was defendable through data and facts.

“The more significant the restriction, the more significant data that will be needed,” said Ahner, who has applied this concept to capacity limits at bars and restaurants by saying it would be difficult to prove someone contracted COVID-19 at such establishments.

But Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson defended findings that COVID-19 cases have been tied to indoor gatherings. She took a moment to explain how the virus can not only be contracted via droplets that land on surfaces, but through air transmission as well, which means events in enclosed spaces pose a higher risk than those that occur outdoors.

Robinson also provided several examples of how cases have been tied to indoor gatherings, including one instance in which a man in his 90s who lived alone and had not gone out in public, attended a recent trade show where he contracted COVID-19 and later died.

And this relationship between sizable gatherings and an influx in COVID-19 cases is not new.

The health department first announced large events and indoor gatherings had contributed to a surge of cases in Flathead County several weeks ago. Those findings were reiterated at the top of Monday’s directive, which said as of Oct. 26 outbreaks in Flathead County have been linked to the large events including five weddings, three trade shows, and three political events.

ALSO DURING the meeting, Robinson said Flathead County recorded 564 new cases from Oct. 25 to Oct. 31, a new record for the area. She said this sharp increase came about one week after Flathead County actually recorded a slight decline in new cases.

Board Chair Burg also presented a COVID-19 forecast that predicts, given the current spread of the virus, Flathead County may see more than 2,000 new cases from mid-October through mid-November.

Some of these projections were outlined in an open letter the board was also expected to vote on during Monday’s meeting. The letter was signed by Burg on behalf of the board members, with the exception of Annie Bukacek, who dissented.

Among other points, the letter outlined the county’s increase in lab-confirmed cases, acknowledged the strain that health orders have placed on businesses and families and addressed public divisiveness surrounding COVID-19 safety recommendations, while still urging residents to follow them in order to protect vulnerable populations.

“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 have consequences for others around — small inconveniences multiplied across the population can have a significant impact on the prevalence of disease in our community,” the letter states. “We all want this pandemic to be over, yet pretending it does not exist will not help to keep our school open and our businesses thriving.”

A subcommittee spent several weeks crafting the letter, but the board decided not to move forward with releasing it to the public and local media outlets after it became apparent that several members did not agree with some of its contents.

For example, Bukacek said she did not support the data that was presented on COVID-19 cases and Holmquist did not approve of some language changes she said were made last-minute. For example, one part of the letter states “those with minimal or no symptoms can spread the virus,” whereas Holmquist said it should instead say “those with minimal or no symptoms can possibly spread the virus.”

While some members suggested reworking the letter and voting on the revised draft at the board’s next meeting, others said they didn’t see the point.

“Anything that we would release would have to be so watered down that it wouldn’t mean anything at all,” Robinson said. “I don’t think it will ever come together. We have gone over this letter exhaustively.”

Burg added that some of the board members’ conflicting views on medicine and health — namely those between physicians Heyboer and Bukacek — is “an unbridgeable gap.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or