Business owners react to new capacity restrictions in Cascade County

Posted at 4:00 PM, Oct 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-31 18:00:38-04

Some business owners are in a state of flux this week, after the Cascade City-County Board of Health voted on Wednesday to reduce business capacity from 75% to 50%. The change will take effect November 1, and many business owners are making changes to protect their bottom lines.

  • 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.

Two big downtown draws, Enbar Craft Cocktail Lounge and The Block, have moved to a take-out only model for at least the next week. Michael Hallahan, who co-owns both locations, said it's due to a number of factors, including staff shortages related to quarantines. He said the county's decision to limit capacity means small businesses will need more community support: "We need the community to help us," he said.

The Board of Health made the decision to reduce business capacity in a nearly four-hour meeting on Wednesday night. They also decided to limit event gatherings to 50 people, but board members repeatedly emphasized the limit on gatherings did not include businesses. Chairperson Terry Barber and Great Falls City Commissioner Owen Robinson voted against the measure to reduce capacity. They said many small businesses in the area are barely scraping by at 75% capacity. "I think they're struggling already," Barber said. "I think there's a lot of people already choosing not to go out."

But hospitals in the community are still operating at or above capacity in some areas, and running out of ICU space. Dr. Ray Geyer, a board member and infectious disease specialist at the Great Falls Clinic, painted a bleak picture of the stakes. "We do not have a plan for when the day comes that you need emergency assistance, and there's not an ambulance person who's well enough to drive the ambulance."

During a public comment session, several medical professionals called into the meeting and agreed with Geyer, while some small business owners said 50% capacity wouldn't be tenable. It was a tough choice, and every board member, at one point or another, acknowledged that either decision could hurt healthcare professionals or business owners.

"I don't think there's a lot of restaurants out there that are able to make all their bills right now," said Arlo Christianson, owner of the Fox Farm Diner. He said his wife is working four jobs to keep their employees on board.

But some business owners said they could stomach the blow. Greg Hall, managing partner of Access Fitness in Great Falls, told MTN News he'll do whatever it takes to stay open safely: "If they ask us to go to a lesser number, we have to do what we have to do. It's about grandma, or the aunt, or the neighbor. As a society we have to do that: pull together, bite the bullet and just get through this."

These restrictions will remain in place until Cascade County’s virus spread rate is down to 25 or fewer new cases per 100,000 people for four weeks. The rate is currently 64 new cases per 100,000, according to County Health Officer Trisha Gardner. Dr. Geyer, an infectious disease specialist for the Great Falls Clinic, noted that the 64/100,000 virus spread rate is concerning and “unheard of.”