New COVID cases jump in Missoula; county exploring proposed face mask order

The number of COVID-19 cases across Montana are now outpacing numbers seen in March. (Montana Department of Health and Human Services)

State health officials reported another 49 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, including 20 new cases in Missoula County, marking the city’s largest single day increase since the pandemic set in four months ago.

Local health officials said those new Missoula cases are an accumulation over days and reflect a disparity between how local and state health officials reported new cases.

However it’s diced, new infections across the state are now outpacing even the highest numbers seen in March before the economy shut down. In the last two days alone, Montana has recorded 102 new cases, or more than 10% of all the cases reported throughout the pandemic.

The jump in cases both statewide and locally has spurred new concerns among local health officials and county leaders. Given the rapid increase, officials have asked the Missoula County Attorneys Office to review laws that might support a local order to require masks or face coverings in public.

“The health department continues to review if that’s an ordinance they can put in place and enforce,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief administrative officer. “They’ve been talking to the county attorney’s office on what enforcement would look like.”

The health board was scheduled to take up the proposal on July 16, though county leaders now fear that’s too far out given the increase in cases and evidence of community spread.

“We’re at a point now that’s much worse and in some respects more dire than earlier phases of this pandemic,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Given the emergency nature of what we’re experiencing, if we’re considering the possibility of ratcheting up requirements for masking, I see no reason why we couldn’t convene a special health board meeting sooner rather than later.”

Since widening the economic reopening on June 1, both state and local health officials have implored citizens to wear masks when in public, warning that the virus is still present and could spread as crowd sizes increase and social gathering takes place.

Those warnings have come to fruition and commissioners on Tuesday lamented the lack of face coverings in public, naming several restaurants, bars, grocery stores and recent events where crowds were large and protective measures weren’t being taken.

“This sounds like a situation that’s screaming out for some official guidance,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy said Tuesday that her department is actively exploring rules and regulations around a mask ordinance. But doing so requires research, staffing and compliance by the public.

She said the evidence that masking can slow the spread of the virus is strong.

“You have to have a robust ability to enforce it, and you still have to improve the norm,” said Leahy. “Regulations rely on most people complying without enforcement. We have to look at where the legal power exists to enforce it, and the staffing power to enforce it.”

County commissioners will also look at rolling back plans to reopen some county offices, including administration, which was set to open on Monday.

“Clearly, it sends mixed messages if we’re continuing to open up and the conditions with COVID-19 are getting worse,” said Strohmaier.