One year on: Whitefish’s COVID-19 response

Posted at 4:51 PM, Mar 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-15 18:51:06-04

WHITEFISH — The popular tourist destination of Whitefish put tight COVID-19 restrictions in place this past year despite minimal support from Flathead County officials.

MTN News talked with city officials and a local hotel owner about the impact these restrictions have made one year into the pandemic.

“We’ve looked at it as a community impact and how could this impact our community if this gets out of control,” said Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith.

Smith says the city put matters into their own hands during the early stages of the pandemic due to minimal support at the county level.

“The intent was to protect our most vulnerable population, keep our businesses open, keep the schools open, we need those kids in school learning,” Smith told MTN News.

The restrictions included the city requiring the use of face masks in all indoor public settings before the state-wide mandate was enacted.

“We’re actually sitting that same way today where we still have our masks ordinance in place,” Smith said.

City officials also put in tight restrictions for incoming travelers last spring, prohibiting lodging facilities in Whiteish from providing accommodations for reservations and walk-in stays.

“Many of our lodging facilities shut down for at least a month if not longer, not easy to do but one way that we -- at that time, felt we could protect our residents from that virus being brought into Montana,” Smith said.

Hidden Moose Lodge owner Kent Taylor says his business relied heavily on government assistance to pay employees when lodging restrictions were put in place.

“It panicked me because everything canceled, we take a deposit of one night’s stay to secure a reservation, so we refunded hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Taylor recalled.

Once the restrictions were lifted, Taylor says his hotel recorded their best year ever in terms of revenue and total guests.

“And we hit 25 years of being in operation at Christmas and we ended up having the best year we ever had, and we lost almost three months of no reservations,” Taylor said.

The City of Whitefish utilized CARES Act funding to enact a COVID-19 task force, promoting safety restrictions and consistent messaging throughout downtown.

“It helped I think when it came to visitors especially coming to Whitefish because last summer -- and I think we’re going to see it again this coming summer -- we’re seeing an increase, a significant increase in out-of-state visitors,” Smith said.

Smith also said that COVID-19 task force messaging will remain up throughout the city for the foreseeable future.

The Whitefish City Council extended their emergency masks ordinance back in February after Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the statewide mandate.