Missoula health officials set slower, stricter plans for phased reopening

Posted at 7:20 AM, Apr 27, 2020

MISSOULA — Saying the city needs more time to prepare for a phased reopening and still lacks testing materials, the Missoula City-County Health Department on Friday implemented guidelines more stringent than those issued this week by Gov. Steve Bullock in his Phase 1 plans.

Health Officer Ellen Leahy said local officials received the governor’s plan just as it was being released. After reviewing it, they opted to issue stricter guidance and take a slower, more cautious approach to reopening the city’s economy.

“I’m finding this particular phased approach the governor issued statewide, when looking our community, it needs to be a little more gradual, a little better phased, and be mindful that our testing capacity isn’t where I’d like it to be,” said Leahy.

The governor’s order hinged largely on what Leahy described as recommendation and not requirements, and local health officials have added requirements to their plan. They will limit events to 25 people in Phase 1, including festivals, markets, private parties outside the home, and other events.

The governor’s Phase 1 plan also allowed salons, barber shops, massage studios and spas to reopen. That won’t happen in Missoula as long as Phase 1 remains in effect.

Bullock gave no timeline on how long Phase 1 will last.

“Under my order, they shall remain closed until Phase 2,” Leahy said. “To quote Dr. Fauci, the virus sets the timeline. My concern about economic disadvantage is doing something that would lead to the re-shuttering of businesses.”

Bullock’s plan also allows Main Street and retail businesses to open next Monday. However, local health officials believe more time is needed to implement tools for a safe reopening.

While those businesses open in Montana’s other urban counties, they’ll remain closed in Missoula, less curbside pickup or delivery. Leahy said the local restriction could be lifted on May 1 if businesses adhere to several rules.

“We’ll add some additional requirements – not recommendations – so that when those businesses do reopen, people are more protected,” Leahy said. “Those requirements will also apply to businesses that were already open.”

Bullock’s plan also permits bars, restaurants and casinos to reopen on May 4 under certain recommendations, including 50% reduced capacity and limited hours of operation.

Leahy said her order will follow that particular guideline.

“We found that the reopening for dining, breweries, distilleries and bars, with the delayed opening there, provided better protections than retail businesses, and it already had a requirement for 50% (capacity),” Leahy said. “We don’t need to change that.”

However, she said, the governor’s order included unenforceable language regarding some issues on dining. The local health department has added tougher language regarding sanitation, physical distancing and capacity, including quick serves.

“These measures will remain in place until the governor moves the state to a Phase 2 reopening, or until we revoke the order or revise it,” Leahy said. “We’d revise it by reviewing the epidemiological data, our testing capacity and the penetration we’ve had in the population for testing, and our capacity to do contact tracing, quarantine, isolation and our healthcare capacity.”

Missoula is Montana’s second most populated county behind Yellowstone County. Officials there this week said they will follow the governor’s phased reopening and its timeline.

  • In Missoula, however, officials expressed a number of lingering concerns, including the city’s medical hub and what they say is an ongoing lack of testing.

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines this week said the state received $5 million from CDC to bolster its testing and contact tracing. But Missoula officials said there’s a disconnect between the state and local communities, and supplies aren’t arriving as promised.

“We’ve been advocating every day to get more testing,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “We’ve been trying to track down (supplies) allocated to Missoula County for the last couple days. While we hear about testing supplies being available at the state and federal level, we’re having challenges finding it here on the ground.”

Those on Friday’s press call supported the health department’s decision to follow a slower timeline and hold back on reopening, including several of the city’s economic leaders.

Grant Kier, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said area employees, consumers and businesses needed confidence if the local economy is going to recover.

“Everything we see in the data, and it’s true that we hear this anecdotally from our businesses, tells us that our recovery, economically, isn’t going to start until we have confidence,” said Kier. “We need confidence for our business owners that they’re proceeding down a predictable path that makes their places of business as safe as possible.”

Linda McCarthy, director of the Missoula Downtown Association, agreed. She said the district as a whole is looking for unified guidelines and best practices on how to take the next step.

“They do need more information and more guidance,” said McCarthy. “Their priority is to make sure their employees are safe, their customers are safe, and that they’re implementing the right practices to take care of everybody. They want a calm and confident approach to opening.”

Since the pandemic hit in mid-March, Missoula County has reported 41 cases of COVID-19 and one death. The rate of infection has slowed in recent days with no new confirmed cases.

But as the community slowly reopens, officials expect to see new cases climb.

“We’re going to have to adapt to a new normal,” said Cindy Farr, head of the local pandemic response. “We’re still experiencing challenges in getting those testing supplies. We’ll see more cases as we begin to open Missoula County.”

Bullock’s phased plan left it up to local communities to make decisions on the local level. Billings and Yellowstone County, the state’s largest by population, said this week they’ll follow the governor’s plan to reopen that region’s economy.

Asked why Missoula was taking a different tact, County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said Missoula was making the right decision by being judicious.

“I would encourage you to flip that question around,” Slotnick said. “How can Yellowstone County keep things open and take this risk when Missoula County has gone otherwise? I think that question is just as valid.”