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Lolo Community Center rejects participation in COVID lawsuit against Missoula Health

Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades talks with an unmasked woman during Tuesday night’s meeting in the Lolo Community Center. He is representing several businesses and organizations in a lawsuit against the Missoula City-County Health Board and health officer. (Laura Lundquist)

The Lolo Community Center will not be part of a lawsuit suing the Missoula City-County Health Board for requiring masks and other COVID-19 safeguards.

On Tuesday night, the board of the Lolo Community Club held an open meeting to discuss the lawsuit and the fact that board chair Warren Kingdon had given the okay to attorney Quentin Rhoades to include the Lolo Community Club in the lawsuit without checking with the rest of the board.

After having to resolve confusion over the club’s bylaws and listening to 90 minutes of public comments – some emotional and almost all angry – the board voted 3-2 to withdraw from the lawsuit. Kingdon didn’t vote, saying he would vote only in the case of a tie.

“I know this is an emotional topic, and I’ve always tried to be fair dealing with the Lolo community,” Kingdon said.

About 60 people attended the meeting. Most of those wanting the Community Center to stay in the lawsuit sat in a tight group not wearing masks, while the rest of the audience wore masks and were spaced throughout the community center. 

The complaint filed on Tuesday in Missoula district court said the Missoula City-County Health Board and Health Officer Ellen Leahy were violating people’s rights by putting rules in place to limit the business hours and the number of people allowed to be in places like bars and restaurants, and by requiring masks in businesses.

Kingdon said he was approached by Stand Up Montana, the Bozeman group heading the lawsuit, and had added his business, Kingdon Enterprises LLC, to the two other businesses and two organizations involved.

Rhoades said the lawsuit wouldn’t cost the Lolo Community Club any money because he was doing all the work for free.

“In none of these COVID-19 cases I’m having do I charge anybody a nickel,” Rhoades said. “We have these people who believe in these principles and they’re willing to fight for these principles on their own dime. And I’m one of them. And some of these expert witnesses that are working with me also want to join in.”

Saying he has “scientists who are willing to back us up,” Rhoades went on to claim that masks don’t work and that the virus isn’t deadly unless people are older. He said masks belong more to an Eastern rather than Western way of thinking, which promotes being a cog in a machine, and compared a mask to an executioner’s hood.

However, the U.S. Center of Disease Control lists several studies showing how masks slow the spread of disease. Later, Rhoades wore a mask as he talked with unmasked audience members.

Few people were present to oppose joining the lawsuit because they didn’t want to gather inside the Community Center where the meeting was held. So another Lolo resident had collected the names of 78 residents who wanted the community center to opt out and three that wanted to stay in the lawsuit.

Jessica Harrall stepped up to read a statement from Aaron Brock, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center, which oversees aspects of the Lolo Food Bank. The Lolo Food Bank uses the community center to distribute food.

The statement said the lawsuit undermines the safety of the 30 families who depend on the food bank. So the food bank would not be associated with the lawsuit and requested the community center withdraw.

It was clear from all the comments that most love Lolo and love the community center. But that’s where the similarity ended. While a few said the lawsuit was not an issue for a community center to be involved in because it was tearing the community in two, others said a community center should be involved because the rules were limiting community activities such as bingo.

At one point, the room erupted into shouting and name-calling.

“This is not an issue that a community center should be involved in. How divided are we right now? How angry are we?” said Barb Tucker. “It’s politics, and I don’t think a community center should be involved in politics.”

Some who showed up to support the lawsuit praised Kingdon for “finally doing something to fight tyranny,” or “to make a difference,” and said it didn’t matter that he didn’t consult the board. Several were from Stevensville. One woman waving an American flag said people just needed to take Vitamin D or hydroxychloroquine and they’d be okay, while others said COVID-19 is just like the flu or chicken pox.

Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, and other alternative remedies do not cure or prevent COVID-19, according to several scientific studies.

Robin, a Lolo Food Bank volunteer and former nurse, said she hates wearing a mask but would do it if it can keep the Community Center open. Her son has volunteered for crisis nursing in New York and Texas where he has cared for pandemic victims and caught COVID-19 while in Texas. When she asked him if it was just like the flu, his answer was, “No, mom. It’s a lot worse.”

Casey Richardson said the Community Club should think outside the box and cheat to get away with joining the lawsuit.

“All you have to do is make a comment in your records that what you’re doing wasn’t by the rules. And you’re covered,” Richardson said. “You can say ‘we didn’t know’ or ‘we weren’t sure’ or ‘we did violate what our rules were, but next time, we’ll do better.’ You’re not making any mistakes that way.”

As to the bylaws, the board apparently could have up to nine members in addition to the chair. Since five board members were present, Kingdon said he was going to invite four more people from the audience to join the board for the vote. As people started jumping up to volunteer, Community Center Treasurer Don Sachs asked for a recess to discuss the bylaws.

When the board returned, Sachs said only the five board members could vote because anyone else had to be a regularly attending member who lived in Lolo. That excluded the people from Stevensville and apparently most of the others who showed up.

Kingdon’s wife Donya and one other board member voted to stay with the lawsuit. Board member Steph Walther, who originally opposed the lawsuit, resigned after some refused to wear masks in the building.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.