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Flathead County Health Officer Reflects On Northwest Montana Fair After Crowds Gather Unmasked

NW Montana Fair & Rodeo Logo

The Northwest Montana State Fair and Rodeo wrapped up on Sunday. Over the weekend images of the event published by the Daily Interlake newspaper showing a crowd at the rodeo circulated on social media and raised concern about possible spread of COVID-19. Event organizers say around 40,000 people attended the fair over its five day run. MTPR’s Aaron Bolton spoke with Flathead County Health Officer Tamilee Robinson via video chat to get her thoughts on how the fair went.

Bolton: Back in July, the Flathead County Fair Board, which puts on the Northwest Montana State Fair and Rodeo, decided to hold the large event with some restrictions in place, such as social distancing and masks. Photos from the Daily Interlake seemed to show more than 2,000 people, few wearing masks, packed into the rodeo stands last weekend. The head of the county fair board, Mark Campbell, says the pictures are misleading in terms of how far apart people were sitting.

As Flathead County's top public health official what do you think when you see the pictures of the crowd in the rodeo stands?

Robinson: In the governor's directive, it's recommended that any event submit a plan to the public health department for input on how they can meet the governor's directives. So we look at their plan. We give them input. We asked them to get rid of the mosh pit at the concert. We asked them to get rid of the beer gardens, and they did. They significantly decreased the number of participants at the rodeo, at the concert and at the demolition derby, and they were requiring masks at the front gate and also into the grandstands. On paper, it did meet the directives. And so, we voiced our concern on, are you going to be able to enforce this plan? And they assured us that, yes they could. It was my understanding that when the crowd was standing, you can't really see the number of empty seats. As far as the masking order went, I don't know, you would have to ask the fair board why this wasn't enforced or how it did not get enforced, because that was their responsibility to enforce their plan.

Bolton: I talked to Mark Campbell yesterday about this, and he said they were attempting to enforce the mask mandate. They had to have one on when they entered the fair. They had to have one on when they entered the grandstands for the rodeo. But he said many people chose to remove them the second that they got through the gate.

From the health department's perspective, is that problematic?

Robinson: It is a problem and it's really disappointing. I guess this situation has proven to us that crowds really will not do the right thing when given the choice; and going forward I think we'll keep that in mind when we look at other plans.

A screen capture from the Northwest Montana Fair website August 26, 2020. The homepage says "We are working closely with our Health Department, vendors, exhibitors, and within directives to produce the safest community showcase possible during the pandemi
A screen capture from the Northwest Montana Fair website August 26, 2020. The homepage says "We are working closely with our Health Department, vendors, exhibitors, and within directives to produce the safest community showcase possible during the pandemic."

Bolton: According to the fair board, about 40,000 people attended over five days, which is about half of the normal attendance. It's been a week since the fair opened its gates. It's obviously done now as of this weekend, and the county saw its largest single day spike Wednesday, 33 new reported COVID-19 cases. Are any of those attributed to the fair?

Robinson: Our biggest spike right now is not involving the fair. It's in a long-term care facility which has had 20 plus cases in it. So that's where a lot of our cases are coming from right now. The incubation of COVID-19 is up to 14 days, and so we're halfway through there. At the end of 14 days, we'll really kind of know if we had cases attributed to the fair. That I know of, we haven't had any cases attributed to the fair.

Bolton: Is the health department doing any monitoring for possible spread of COVID-19 specific to the fair? Is this something that the county is really focusing on?

Robinson: During our case investigations, that is one of the questions on our investigation form, is: did you attend the fair?

Bolton: As so many events are being canceled this year because of COVID-19, what did you think it meant for the people in Flathead Valley and the surrounding counties to have the event, to have some kind of normalcy there? Was it important to have?

Robinson: You know, I think that's one thing everybody is seeking right now. I think we kind of have COVID fatigue and everyone would like to get back to normal. I think that's just simply human behavior. You don't need to wear a mask because the CDC tells you or because the governor tells you or because the county health department tells you. Wear a mask to help protect the people who are vulnerable and also to help keep our businesses open. It's important that everybody kind of do their part because we want our businesses and our schools to stay open this year.

Bolton: Thank you again for taking the time.

Robinson: Sure. Thank you.

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