Flathead City-County Health Department Credit: Photo courtesy Flathead Beacon

On March 19, then-Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson asked the Flathead City-County Health Board to support a measure to close local bars, restaurants and fitness centers to the public for at least 10 days to slow the spread of COVID-19. Hanson said she didn’t need the board’s support — Montana Code Annotated gives a health officer unilateral authority to take steps to protect the public’s health — but she wanted it anyway. 

The measure easily passed on an eight to one vote. The lone no vote came from Dr. Annie Bukacek, an outspoken critic of vaccines who falsely stated during the meeting that COVID-19 is “no more dangerous than influenza.”

Since that March meeting, it has become considerably more difficult to find consensus on ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the Flathead Valley. 

As of Friday, the state department of public health reports 1,570 active cases of COVID-19 in Flathead County, placing it in a top tier of statewide hotspots including Missoula County (1,695 active cases), Gallatin County (1,863), Cascade County (1,949) and Yellowstone County (4,205). But unlike those counties, Flathead has imposed no crowd-size restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, despite pleas from local hospital officials. Presently, Yellowstone, Gallatin and Missoula counties prohibit gatherings of more than 25 people, and Cascade County has capped gatherings at 50. 

On two separate occasions in recent weeks, the Flathead City-County Health Board has rejected proposals to limit indoor public gatherings to 500 people

The most recent attempt, during an emergency meeting on Nov. 2, was derailed by a tie vote. Board member and Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist said at the time she was worried that the restriction would be unenforceable

Kyle Waterman, a Kalispell city councilor who sits on the health board and twice voted for the 500-person cap, said the debate has been bogged down by politicization of response to the virus. He also said that while some health board and community members have raised concerns about how the restrictions might impact businesses, he thinks that concern is beyond the health board’s proper purview.

“Our mission is to make public health recommendations, not to think about how it might impact business,” he said. 

Waterman said he believes the 500-person cap would help event planners and limit the spread of the virus, noting that many COVID cases have stemmed from large gatherings like weddings, trade shows and political events. He also noted that county health officers do not need the board’s permission to institute the restriction, but added that Flathead County is in a “tricky situation” because it is currently operating with an interim public health officer. Hanson stepped down in June to take a new job, and was temporarily replaced by Health Board Chair Tamalee St. James Robinson. The board was in the process of hiring a new health officer on Friday. 

“It has been extremely frustrating. The lack of action by Flathead County has been very disappointing. They have turned the virus into a political football instead of listening to the science and taking steps to protect its citizens.”

—Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld

Robinson was not available for comment this week, and Deputy Public Health Officer Kerry Nuckles declined to comment when asked why Robinson had not bypassed the board and instituted the restrictions herself, as some other county health officers have. Nuckles did say that the health department has no plans to return to the health board with a third request to approve a crowd-size restriction. 

Some community members have pinned the blame for the board’s inaction on Bukacek, who was appointed to the board a year ago amid controversy. In recent days, dueling petitions have emerged seeking to remove her from the board or, alternately, keep her on the board. (As of Nov. 12, the petition to keep her had more signatures). Bill Burg, acting chair of the health board, agreed that Bukacek’s presence has fueled division and resulted in inaction. 

“She’s a really sweet person, she’s a really nice lady, but the Flathead County Commission made a mistake putting her on the board, because she does not believe in the mission of public health,” he said. 

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said the county’s decision to not institute crowd-size restrictions is “mind boggling.”

“It has been extremely frustrating,” he said. “The lack of action by Flathead County has been very disappointing. They have turned the virus into a political football instead of listening to the science and taking steps to protect its citizens.”

In many instances, the city of Whitefish has been ahead of the curve in responding to the virus. In March, the city asked hotels and short-term rentals to stop accepting reservations, and in July the city adopted a mandatory-mask ordinance, a day before Gov. Steve Bullock instituted a similar rule statewide. Recently, the city organized a COVID-19 Task Force to appeal to the community to wear masks and avoid gathering in large groups. Muhlfeld called the appeal a “last ditch effort” before having to institute tougher local restrictions like limiting hours at bars and restaurants and capacity limits. 

Muhlfeld said it is frustrating that messaging and restrictions have had to come from municipalities, demonstrating a failure of leadership at the federal, state and county levels. He said that while he applauded Bullock’s early leadership on the pandemic in the spring, he would like to see more direction from the governor’s office as Montana’s caseload continues to climb. 

Nuckles said it’s too early to know if the measures taken by Whitefish are having a positive impact on public health. Waterman said he wishes Whitefish had a voice on the county health board, but added that piecemeal regulation in the Flathead Valley would probably do little to arrest the spread, since Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls and surrounding communities are so interconnected. 

What is known is that the virus continues to spread at a dangerous rate in the valley. 

“COVID cases are continuing to climb rapidly,” Nuckles said. “Hospitalizations and other COVID-19 community capacity indicators for the Flathead show that we are struggling.”

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.