MISSOULA — The University of Montana will host Western Illinois for their football home opener Saturday and as a battle plays out on the field, an even bigger conflict will take place outside the stadium -- Missoula’s robust sports bar scene versus COVID-19.
MTN News sat down with the Missoula City-County Health Department and some of your favorite bars to gauge the anticipation and anxiety going into the ballgame -- and Washington-Grizzly Stadium will soon greet 25,000 fans.
“It’s one of the best stadiums in the country,” noted Matt Warner with the Press Box General Manager Matt Warner.
The bars will be wall to wall with Griz fans and the city of Missoula will look a little more like Missoula.
“We've been waiting for this for a year and a half,” Warner said.
“Yeah, it’s everything,” added the Meagher Bar Manager Luke Gates.
Every Griz football season proves critical for the city’s economic success, but this season, it’s fourth down for Missoula’s bar scene -- and they have no choice but to go for it.
“It's just hugely important, missing last year,” Warner said. “The two games in April were nice, but I told everyone here, you know, that isn't even really a sniff of what a normal Griz season is.
“Montana is a huge football state, especially Missoula having the Griz in town, so missing out on that, I mean that’s huge, we feel that,” Gates told MTN News.
While a recipe for revenue is cooking within the walls of the Press Box and Meagher Bar, there’s a concern looming overhead and it’s one that has the Health Department sweating – it's the pandemic.
“So, we definitely have some concerns, you know, with football games and lots of people coming into town and then the after parties and going out to the bars that we could potentially see another big jump in cases,” noted the Health Deaprtment’s Cindy Farr.
Unlike last year at this time, the Health Department no longer has jurisdiction over bars and restaurants when it comes to COVID-19 mandates.
The prospect of what this football season could turn into is startling for those holding the frontlines.
“Thanks to a lot of bills that got passed through the legislature this year in Montana, we don't have any mitigation measures that we can put into place in public health, and so it is very possible that, you know, we could just continue to see those numbers climbing throughout the fall, and all the way into next spring." - MCCHD COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr
A former Griz herself, COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr knows the economic significance of a home football game -- and assuming the mass of Griz fans coming into town won’t slow, she has recommendations for those attending the game.
“Keep your social circles small, so if you're going to go to the Grizz game, have your little pod of people that you know and you hang out with and try not to intermingle with a whole bunch of other people,” Farr advised.
“Assess your own health and make sure you’re feeling healthy, because even a small sign of COVID especially with Delta circulating, even small symptoms could mean that you're very contagious, and obviously the best, best thing that you can do is get vaccinated.”
Eighteen months into the pandemic and 18 months into economic turmoil -- bars need customers and the health department needs a break.
“I know that people are tired of hearing us say you need to get vaccinated, but it's not just to protect you in this moment, it's so that we can get to the end of the pandemic,” Farr said.
“We want to build some sort of momentum again, ya know missing even one season we’re trying to catch up so we can get back to some sort of normality,” Gates said.
“Griz season has to happen for us to be happy, revenue-wise we have to have a Griz season,” Warner concluded.