GREAT FALLS — Following a three-hour Zoom meeting on Wednesday evening which featured numerous passed and failed motions, several public comment periods, and input from elected and public health officials, the Cascade County Board of Health voted to enact the following restrictions in Cascade County, effective Nov. 1, in order to curb the spread of COVID-19:
- All in-person gatherings are now capped at 50-people regardless of social distancing or whether the events are indoors or outdoors. The previous limit was 250 people for indoor events and 500 for outdoor events. There are exemptions for schools, polling places and places of worship. For schools, there is no change from the Governor’s Directive, which exempts local school districts, school boards and all school-related activities. Polling places still require masks and social distancing. Weekly worship Services in churches remain at 75% occupancy unless social distancing can not be maintained. Childcare facilities are also exempt from this.
- Capacity at bars, restaurants, casinos, cafes, coffee houses, brew pubs, taverns, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, clubs, gyms, and movie theaters is now limited to 50 percent. There is an exemption for food service establishments that serve a population which depends on that establishment for their sole source of food, such as school cafeterias, hospital and healthcare facilities, and crisis shelters.
There was also a vote on the 12:30 a.m. closing time for those same establishments listed above after the second restriction. Board members chose not to change that restriction.
Members of the public ranging from concerned parents to healthcare workers to business owners spoke up during the public comment periods, voicing their opinions both for and against the proposed restrictions.
Cascade County Health Officer Trisha Gardner is not on the Board of Health, and therefore does not get a vote in the proceedings, but board members repeatedly deferred to her for guidance and to answer several questions from the public about the pandemic.
These restrictions will remain in place until Cascade County’s virus spread rate is down to 25 new cases per 100,000 people. That rate is currently at 64 new cases per 100,000, according to Gardner. Dr. Raymond Geyer, an infectious disease specialist for the Great Falls Clinic, and one of only two healthcare professionals on the Board (along with Dr. Matt Martin, a dentist), noted that the 64/100,000 virus spread rate is concerning and “unheard of.”
One question was raised about whether or not the size of the venue matters when it comes to limiting gathering sizes. “We are not seeing people distancing in those instances,” replied Trisha Gardner. “Where there’s more and more people gathering, we see more spread.”
“If everyone is six feet apart and wears masks, it’ll work,” added Dr. Geyer. “Our experience has been that human beings don’t do that.”
There were three options on the table for the board to use as a template when proposing motions for or against new restrictions.
Option one was to propose a new measure to go into effect on a set date, and expire when that per capita virus spread rate was down to 25 per 100,000. Option two was to wait for a period of time, wait and see if the virus spread rate would drop down to 25 per 100,000 without new restrictions, and reevaluate at the end of that period of time. The third option was to take no action and implement no new measures. The board made it clear early on in the meeting that the third option was very unlikely.
Missoula County also decided to enact tighter COVID-19 restrictions earlier this week. The new rules took effect at 8 a.m. on Thursday. The new rules for Missoula County state that businesses -- including retail, bars, and restaurants will be limited to 50% capacity, events and gatherings are reduced to 25 people and no alcohol service is allowed after 10 p.m.. A voluntary stay at home order was also called for.