State sees surge in new COVID cases, number of business complaints

Montana added another 855 active cases to the almost 30,000 total cases since COVID-19 invaded the state in March. More than 60 of those new cases were in Missoula County. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current file photo)

Most Montanans are taking COVID-19 precautions seriously, but more need to follow facemask and social distancing recommendations to stem a surge in cases and keep people safe.

That was the message that Gov. Steve Bullock and three medical professionals emphasized in a Tuesday press conference as Montana added another 855 active cases to the almost 30,000 total cases since COVID-19 invaded the state in March. More than 60 of those new cases were in Missoula County.

Stacey Anderson, state lead communicable disease epidemiologist, said more than 4,000 cases were reported just last week, a 17% increase since the previous week. If the state’s 305 deaths were all in St. Regis, the town would be empty.

Flathead County led Tuesday’s case count with more than 100 new cases and has drawn attention recently because of a prevailing resistance to state health guidance.

Five days ago, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services took enforcement action against five Flathead County businesses that officials deemed “egregious violators” of the state’s COVID-19 health directives. The violations included repeated failure by employees and patrons to wear face masks, to social distance or comply with other public health measures set in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Bullock said hearings on the violations were set for next week, but the businesses have talked about settling, and he hoped they would do so. If the businesses follow the rules, the charges can be dropped.

“The goal is not to punish any business; the goal is to keep employees and customers safe through this pandemic,” Bullock said.

The state took action because Flathead County attorney Travis Ahner chose not to after the businesses were reported. Ahner told the Whitefish Pilot that he and local law enforcement officials decided early in the pandemic they wouldn’t use criminal charges to enforce public health measures, and it was up to the state.

To aid enforcement, the state of Montana added a COVID-19 category to its already existing business license compliance website.

Jim Murphy, state Communicable Disease and Laboratory Services Division administrator, said the site has received 1,300 concerns since the category went live on Thursday. Of the 1,000 legitimate concerns, most came from the most populated counties, but 40 counties had at least one concern.

Once the state receives a complaint, it is forwarded to the local health department, which determines whether to follow up on the complaint and how to handle it. Unless there is no follow-up as in Flathead County.

“What was encouraging was there wasn’t one comment that was attacking a business or overly negative about a business. Most were very constructive,” Murphy said. “Most businesses want to do the right thing, and we’re confident that they understand that it’s in everyone’s best interest.”

When asked if the state would consider a mandate to require individuals to wear masks, Bullock said no. He said crowd-size limitations and business requirements were the most effective way for the state to respond, and most of the time, enforcement was best left to local governments.

Bullock deflected a claim in a Los Angeles Times story that he was avoiding issuing a mandate because of his run for Congress.

“Telling businesses we’re going to hold them accountable if they don’t follow the rules, that’s not popular by any means,” Bullock said. “I’ve always looked at this from a public health perspective and an economic perspective, not a political perspective. The decisions that we’ve been making at the state level have nothing to do with politics. It’s back to the earlier questions: how do we get folks to comply?”

To help businesses that have to enforce mask mandates and hospitals that are nearing capacity, Bullock and the medical professionals made yet another plea to Montanans to follow health recommendations.

State Medical Officer Greg Holzman said he looks at how viruses affect communities, not just individuals, and several communities across the nation are sick. If an individual is one of the lucky ones who is unaffected by the virus, they can still spread the virus to others if they don’t wear a mask or stay at a safe distance. Add to that the fact that there’s a delay between when an individual is infected and when they show symptoms, and there are many ways the virus can move to other people.

People who don’t wear masks can spread it because they don’t know they have it. That’s part of the reason the number of Montana cases is spiking. And why the deaths are increasing.

“No one wants to hurt an innocent bystander. However, if we let the virus spread widely within our communities, some individuals will pay the ultimate price with their health and possibly their life,” Holzman said. “Every death might not have been preventable, but we know we can do better.”

If people would just follow the health guidelines, the state could bring the disease back under control and schools and businesses could fully open again.

Montana is one of 47 states seeing an uptick in cases because of a lack of national leadership and failure to follow prevention recommendations. Bullock said he couldn’t point to any other state that was handling the outbreak any better.

However, China instituted some rigorous methods to reduce its local virus transmission to zero, including mask requirements, mass testing, neighborhood lockdowns and cellphone tracking. As a result, its population is working, and its economy grew 5% during this year’s third quarter.

Americans probably wouldn’t accept China’s model. But if the pandemic keeps growing, the U.S. will be left in the dust as other nations whose citizens observe personal precautions pass us by.

To avert that, Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, has been traveling across the country meeting with state and local officials to encourage them to institute health precautions. She met with Yellowstone County health officials on Tuesday after criticizing North Dakota lack of mask use in Bismark, N.D., on Monday.

North Dakota has no mask mandate and now leads the nation with 105 new cases per 100,000 people compared to the national average of 22 cases per 100,000.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.