Public health officials hold final say on events

| July 24, 2020 8:37 AM

Lincoln County’s public health officer issued a toned down set of pandemic restrictions amid pushback from members of the health board and residents during two public hearings in recent days.

The order, signed by Dr. Brad Black on July 21, closely follows rules handed down by Gov. Steve Bullock last week. Black’s version differentiates by requiring that organizers arranging events with more than 50 people submit a plan with the health department.

Black initially pushed to ban any event with 50 or more people in expected attendance. The measure came up against stiff resistance at a public meeting of the health board hosted via Zoom on July 16.

Black based the order on the sudden upswing of cases locally and the slow return on test results. With evidence of community spread of the coronavirus and health workers unable to trace sources of infection, the cancellation of group events was necessary, Black argued.

In conjunction with the governor’s mask-wearing mandate and other measures, like regular hand washing and social distancing, Black argued the restriction would help curtail COVID-19 locally.

But supporters of this weekend’s rodeo and the annual August car show in Libby said the events represented a boon to the suffering local economy. They argued the events could go on as planned while adhering to public health guidelines handed down by the governor’s office.

In response, Black offered a softer version during a July 20 health board meeting, dropping the blanket ban on events, but requiring plans detailing how organizers will meet pandemic guidelines. The proposals must be submitted 14 days before the event and can be denied by health department officials.

Events already organized for the two weeks immediately following July 21, the date Black signed the order, are exempted from the 14-day requirement, but must still cooperate with health officials.

The order is slightly more rigorous regarding events than the rules health officials already operated under. Prior to the July 21 order, officials were asking event organizers to submit plans to the department. Now the organizers are required to produce a proposal.

Still, several health board members criticized the draft at the July 20 meeting. Member George Jamison called on Black to adhere to the governor’s guidelines and shelve tighter restrictions for further discussion.

Also a member of the organization behind the August car show, Jamison said Black could rely on event planners to take proper precautions.

“I think with some of these events we simply need to trust people to do what’s right, but we need to work with them,” Jamison said, while calling on Black to drop the 14-day requirement for events.

Mark Peck, a member of the board and the county commissioner representing the Libby area, said any proposed restrictions needed to take into account the complexity of the situation. While praising Black for toning down the order, he said that the community continued to suffer during the response to the pandemic. Anecdotally, suicides were up in Lincoln County this year, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of impacts going on in this county that are worse this year than last year,” Peck said. “We don’t know what the ramifications are and we need to be aware of those things.”

As board discussion drifted toward shelving the order for future discussion and whether to meet before the next scheduled gathering, set for August, Black interjected. While agreeing to review the then-draft order again, he reminded board members that he held the last word on public health crises.

“I’m going to protect public health. I’ll listen so long, but I have strong feelings about protecting public health,” Black said.

State law gives health officers wide latitude in protecting public health, up to and including canceling events and ordering sick residents into isolation. While health officers are encouraged to work with state and local officials, they can take steps in the face of “imminent threats” to public health.

“You don’t have the same responsibility that I do — and that is protecting public health,” Black told the board. “I will act in the way that I see that best protects public health.”

Penalties for ignoring the order, which include the governor’s mask mandate for counties with more than four active COVID-19 cases, include the possibility of closure, in the case of a business, or a misdemeanor charge. Outlined in Title 50, Chapter 2, Section 124, that could result in a fine.

County Attorney Marcia Boris reiterated that enforcement would begin with education.

“Just because it is in there doesn’t mean we’re going to go directly to the most draconian solution,” she said. “The intent all around everything I have heard is educating people.”

Only repeat offenders and those flagrantly flouting the measures would face penalties.

“We would hope that those would be a remedy of last resort,” she said. “We’re not eager to do that.”