Gallatin County’s health officer is reiterating the need for planning for group events amid the coronavirus pandemic after an outdoor rally attended by Vice President Mike Pence Monday drew several hundred people eager to catch a glimpse of one of the nation’s highest-ranking elected officials.
Gallatin County Health Officer Kelley says Gallatin County received two emails expressing concern about the Pence rally size and spacing within the crowd.
He says no-one from candidates’ campaigns or the Montana Republican Party reached out to his office ahead of time. Health officials ask for that kind of outreach to help coordinate a safe event during the pandemic.
Kelley wouldn’t comment specifically on the rally, which he didn’t attend. He says collaborating on best practices during events is integral to preventing the virus’ spread. Though its active case total is relatively low now, Gallatin County was a coronavirus hot spot in early April and July.
“And we can be there again," Kelley says. "When you have large groups of people together you raise the risk that you have one of those spreading events that we’ve seen happen around the country, that can be a little bit like throwing fuel on the fire. And we want to avoid that.”
Tables situated around the venue grounds featured big pump containers of Sen. Steve Daines-branded hand sanitizer. Chairs in the audience were grouped away from each other, though social distancing wasn’t maintained at all times. Most attendees didn’t wear facemasks.
Jay Winchester of Belgrade says event safety guidelines are the venue owner’s prerogative.
“I believe in individual rights. If you’re a business, you should be able to decide and people can decide whether to go in or not," Winchester said.
Several attendees say they were comfortable attending the rally because COVID-19 is no deadlier than the flu. Though doctors are still estimating COVID-19 mortality, a Johns Hopkins report says it’s thought to be at least 10 times deadlier than the flu.
Niccole Hamwey from Billings says she joined the rally to be around like-minded patriots. She acknowledged the virus’ seriousness, but says it’s been overblown.
“There are also thousands of other things taking people’s lives. For example, people aren’t going to stop eating McDonald’s, even though that’s affecting their health," Hamwey said.
Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley says large events don’t need to be abandoned completely, but they should be tailored to today’s circumstances.
"When we have fewer cases in the community, it’s easier to keep schools open, it’s easier to protect seniors in nursing homes and hospitals," Kelley said.