Facing uncertainties over the length and intensity of the coronavirus pandemic, Missoula County on Tuesday approved an agreement with the Red Lion to provide rooms for use as a non-congregant shelter.

Adriane Beck, director of the county's disaster and emergency services, said the West Broadway hotel has agreed to provide up to 10 hotel rooms at a cost of $60 per room for every night of use. 

“Our office has been tasked with non-congregant shelter amid COVID-19,” Beck said. “It's a public assistance activity approved by FEMA, which means we receive 75% funding back from the federal government for this activity.”

Beck said the county has seen an increased use of the Sleepy Inn, which was the city's only non-congregant shelter. The city purchased the facility last year for $1.2 million for use as a COVID shelter and later for redevelopment into affordable housing.

The shelter has seen 200 unique users since opening and has been at or near capacity for several weeks, Beck said.  

“It made us pretty nervous about our ability to respond to the needs of individuals who needed to isolate or quarantine to prevent contaminating other community members due to the fact that the people who access non-congregant shelters often live in congregant settings, be it a multi-general household or a homeless shelter,” Beck said.

Like the Sleepy Inn, the Red Lion has been approved for such use. It would accommodate “Tier III” individuals, according to Beck. That demographic is generally described as those over the age of 65 or with underlying conditions.

“We were able to work with the Red Lion to block out a section of rooms to move these folks over there, thus creating more capacity for quarantine and isolation specifically at the Sleepy Inn,” Beck said.

Beck said use of the Sleepy Inn has mirrored what's going on community wide. As the number of infected individuals increases, so too does the number of individuals seeking room at the Sleepy Inn.

Right now, the number of positive cases in Missoula has seen a slight decline.

“We don't have a crystal ball as to when we'll see the spikes or when we'll be done with non-congregant shelter, so we're trying to build as much capacity as we possibly can,” Beck said. “Right now we're seeing lower numbers, but we can't necessarily bank on that.”

The Sleepy Inn has served as a non-congregant shelter since the start of the pandemic.
The Sleepy Inn has served as a non-congregant shelter since the start of the pandemic.

As an approved shelter, FEMA will reimburse 75% of the cost of using the Sleepy Inn and the Red Lion for COVID-related housing. Former Gov. Steve Bullock had directed the state to cover the remaining 25%.

It's unknown what direction Gov. Greg Gianforte will take, though the county is concerned that his administration may direct the state to forgo the 25%, thus passing that expense on to local taxpayers.

Missoula County may have to build that added 25% into its budget, which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on how long the pandemic lasts.

“It's an assumption that we're working on right now,” said Beck. “The previous administration had pledged to provide that 25% match to local jurisdictions. We don't yet know what Gov. Gianforte will do.”