Missoula County Tuesday announced a health order that reduces the number of people allowed to gather for events and in some businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Starting Thursday at 8 am, events and gatherings in Missoula will be limited to 25 people. That includes parties and receptions, meetings, farmers markets, concerts, sporting events, organized youth activities.
For places of worship, the new health order applies to special events outside normal services (e.g. weddings, trainings, meetings, fundraisers, dinners).
The health order does not apply to schools, childcare facilities or voting.
Organizers for events with 26 to 250 people must have written plans and consult with the health department beforehand. For events with more than 250 people, organizers are required to develop and submit a written COVID-19 Event Plan to the health department for review and approval 10 or more days prior to the gathering.
Missoula County Health Officer Ellen Leahy said the new health order will be in effect for at least two weeks, which is the incubation period for the coronavirus.
“Unfortunately the virus has gotten ahead of us. While that is not surprising, it is definitely time to act and to push back down on it,” Leahy said.
Also starting Thursday, restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries, casinos, retail businesses, gyms, and places of assembly (e.g. conference centers, theaters, bowling alleys) will be required to limit capacity to 50 percent.
Only eight people will be allowed per table at places that serve food and drinks, and bars will be required to close at 10 pm.
Health Officer Leahy said one metric to decide if the health order is revoked or revised depends on whether the seven day average of new cases per 100,000 people drops to 25 for two weeks. Currently, it’s twice that.
Local hospital capacity, testing resources and the turn around time to isolate people who are infected are also metrics being used to evaluate whether stricter health orders are needed.
Missoula Mayor John Engen said the health department is behind on contact tracing and some long term care facilities are nearly overrun with COVID-19.
Joyce Dombrouski, Chief Executive of Providence Montana said the dramatic surge of COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks has been exhausting for hospital staff and that staffing is further strained when some go into quarantine.
“Just today we have six caregivers who are not able to come to work to take care of all of you in the hospital because they have been exposed through community spread to someone in their household,” Dombrouski said.
Rob Watson, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools, said he hopes the community prioritizes flattening the curve so schools can stay open to provide educational, emotional and nutritional support to students.
“As cases go up in the community, we see more students and staff that are on quarantine due to close contacts outside of school. If we have too many staff that are out, we may have to close a school or put a school on remote learning because of the lack of substitutes and lack of staff in a particular school,” Watson said.
Watson said Missoula County’s public schools has around 9000 students and staff. They’ve had 82 cases since the start of the school year with 15 cases currently active.