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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Kalispell Church's Continued In-Person Services Generate Complaints

A screen capture from, April 17, 2020, 6:30 p.m.
A screen capture from, April 17, 2020, 6:30 p.m.

A Kalispell congregation continues its in-person services, despite stay-at-home orders issued due to the coronavirus pandemic. That's generated complaints to the Flathead City-County Public Health Department. The comments come as some are calling for a physician affiliated with the non-denominational Christian congregation to be removed from the county health board.

Lakeside resident Kate Shaw was one of about six people calling for Annie Bukacek’s removal at the Flathead City-County Health Board's meeting Thursday.

“She is actively subverting the efforts of our community to protect from the COVID-19 pandemic," Shaw said. "She’s divisive and puts us all at risk. Please remove Annie Bukacek from the board.”

In a video viewed about 750,000 times, Bukacek's early April address to the Liberty Fellowship congregation falsely claimed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is artificially spiking the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

Bukacek also organized an in-person protest in Kalispell and is actively promoting others. Flathead County commissioners said public comments have landed on both sides of the issue, but Philip Mitchel is the only commissioner to express concern about the physician’s actions.

Bukacek did not return a request for comment by deadline.

The Flathead City-County Public Health Department also received multiple complaints after MTPR reported on Liberty Fellowship’s in-person services. That service attracted roughly 45 churchgoers on Easter Sunday, in violation of Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order.

Bullock’s office provided guidance to churches, with a written statement outlining that they can bring small groups together "to record or broadcast a virtual service."

The county health department says large gatherings are a violation of the governor’s directive. The department says it must receive a complaint from a first-hand witness before it can take action against Liberty Fellowship. The department was still reviewing complaints as of Friday.

Pastor Chuck Baldwin issued a statement on social media confirming that he is holding limited in-person services inside of the Hilton Garden Inn’s conference center. The hotel initially issued a statement to MTPR saying, “there are no church services being held on the property." However, Hilton amended its statement after MTPR’s report, saying “All events on property at this time are being held with reduced attendance."

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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