COVID-19 Joint Information Center announces new restrictions in Missoula County

MISSOULA - During their virtual press conference on Tuesday, Oct. 27, the COVID-19 Joint Information Center announced new Missoula County restrictions that will go into effect at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 29.

Missoula City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy said beginning this week, business capacity will be limited to 50%, event gathering sizes will be reduced to 25 people and alcohol service will stop at 10 p.m. Any group event over 25 is expected to check in with the health department before planning the gathering. Organizers must have a written plan on how the event will function in accordance with requirements.

Those interested in submitting an event plan should email or call (406) 258-4755 for the Environmental Health Division.

None of these limitations apply to classrooms or other school-related activities as long as spectators are not present. They also do not apply to voting activities. Personal care, gyms and retail businesses are not affected but places of assembly like worship organizations would still be limited.

Leahy said they are stopping the reduction at 25 people because there are structured settings where groups can get together and use distancing and masking to conduct social and physical activities.

"We have learned from our experience here in Missoula that the structured, organized settings, ... actually do bring protection," she said. "So we didn't want to move so tight at this point that we actually were disallowing people access to some structured settings. So much of our spread has occurred outside of structured settings."

The quantified goal of the restrictions is to lower the number of cases to 25 per 100,000 which is considered the "Red Zone." The Oct. 23 incidence rate was 51 per 100,000, more than double the goal. Leahy said the recommended incidence rate of 25 per 100,000 comes from a national metric from the Harvard Global Health Institute. Leahy said a week and a half ago, the rate was at 33.

This rate must be maintained for two consecutive weeks. On Nov. 12, officials will hold their first reassessment of the situation and will determine whether restrictions should be lifted, loosened, tightened or continued.

Missoula Mayor John Engen said the restrictions are meant to prevent detrimental effects on the county's structure.

"These orders are designed to meet these critical community goals which are currently in jeopardy," he said. "We need to prevent uncontrollable spread. We need to keep schools open."

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson said he is worried that students would have to go back to full-remote learning if cases continued to rise. He mentioned there are only currently 15 active cases in MCPS and most of the 82 total cases they have seen have originated outside of the school. Even though it appears that they are preventing the spread within the schools, Watson said if staffing levels become too low due to close contact isolation and quarantine requirements, they may have to shift to remote learning.

"We know that kids need much more than that," Watson said. "They need to be in school not only for academics, but social, emotional learning and health as well as important access to other things like food and counseling services. So I think as a community it's important for us to prioritize having our kids in school."

Missoula County Commissioner Chair Josh Slotnick echoed Engen's urgency.

"We're doing this right now so we can slow what would otherwise become an unstoppable spread," Slotnick said. "We want to make sure we can maintain our hospital access."

Providence Montana Chief Executive Joyce Dombrouski cited a personal example of how healthcare workers can be impacted by an overabundance of cases.

"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," she said. "Our emergency department really is becoming overrun as well. Please help us. Please don't overrun the system and please follow the rules that you know are so impactful."

Grant Kier, executive director of Missoula Economic Partnership, said as COVID-19 cases go up, businesses will be heavily impacted.

"When cases go up, our workers are more likely to get sick and businesses in which they work are more likely to be forced to shut because they don't have a healthy workforce," he said. "If we reduce cases and the risk of spread, you reduce financial losses to our local businesses."

In addition to the restrictions, panelists are still encouraging residents to stay home as much as possible and avoid any situation where social distancing is not possible. They all emphasized the three Ws - Wear your mask, Wash your hands and Watch your distance.

"Masks, hand washing, testing, all of it matters more today than it did in March," Engen said.


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