Tighter restrictions proposed as Flathead COVID numbers climb

by LYNNETTE HINTZE
Daily Inter Lake | October 13, 2020 2:35 AM

In response to a dramatic increase in Flathead County COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, the county Board of Health on Thursday will consider a proposal for tighter restrictions for crowd sizes at bars, restaurants, churches and other social gatherings if case numbers continue to rise.

The proposal from the City-County Health Department would reduce capacity at bars, restaurants and churches to 25%, and any business selling alcohol would have to close by 10 p.m. Social gatherings would be limited to no more than 25 people, regardless of the ability to socially distance.

Schools and school activities and sports are not included in the proposed health order, however.

The new restrictions would kick in if the number of new cases is at an average of 50 per day per 100,000 residents for the week of Oct. 26-Nov. 1, or any Monday through Sunday week following Nov. 1. (This equates to 375 cases per week in Flathead County.) The restrictions would then go into effect at 5 p.m. the Wednesday following the Monday through Sunday period, according to the proposal.

If the Health Board approves the restrictions, a draft order and clarifying documents would be available by Oct. 26 for a one-week review period. The first possible implementation order would be 5 p.m. Nov. 4, according to the proposal.

The board also will consider a second Health Office Order to immediately limit event size to 500.

The City-County Health Department pointed out there have been 889 new cases, as of Oct. 9, in the county, including four additional COVID-related deaths.

Another 280 positive cases were reported Saturday through Monday in Flathead County, and on Monday the City-County Health Department reported 21 current hospitalizations.

The proposal noted the county is functioning at critical levels in four of seven categories, including case investigation capacity and health-care system capacity.

As of Oct. 9 — the date the proposed health order was issued — there were 10 long-term care facilities with current outbreaks, and there have been at least 14 bars and restaurants with outbreaks since the beginning of September, the proposal noted.

“There are outbreaks linked to the large events, including at least four churches, four weddings, three political events and two trade shows,” the Health Department noted.

“It would be an understatement to say the department’s staff have been taxed by the rise in case numbers,” the department stated. “Currently 11 permanent staff have been reassigned from their typical job duties to COVID-19. An additional 22 temporary staff are currently helping assist, most of them part-time. The hiring of new staff to address capacity is ongoing, but the department has been unable to find assistance in a fast-enough manner to address the large increase in cases.”

The Health Department’s proposal for tighter crowd restrictions comes just days after the Flathead County commissioners released a statement saying they “support the constitutional rights of Montanans to make choices about personal protection for themselves and their families.”

The commissioners released their statement a day after Gov. Steve Bullock said Flathead and Yellowstone counties, where cases continue to skyrocket, are not doing enough to implement his mask directive.

The Board of Health will meet from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday via Zoom/phone. Email BoardofHealthAdmin@flathead.mt.gov by 11 a.m. Thursday to request to join the meeting.

To submit public comments to be read, email BoardofHealthAdmin@flathead.mt.gov with your name and city.

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.