The Missoula City-County Health Department is imposing new restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community beginning Thursday and is asking residents to stay at home voluntarily.
Under the new restrictions, businesses are limited to 50% capacity, groups are capped at 25 people, alcohol service stops at 10 p.m., and residents are asked to stay at home voluntarily.
The new restrictions were announced Tuesday, on the same day Missoula County announced that four more people have died since Oct. 23 from complications due to COVID-19. To date, 14 county residents have died from COVID-related complications.
The new restrictions go into effect at 8 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29, and remain in effect until further notice.
"The virus has gotten ahead of us," Missoula City-County Health Department director and health officer Ellen Leahy said during a Tuesday press conference. "While that is not surprising, it is definitely time to act and to push back down on it."
Leahy said Missoula County, which added 60 new cases Tuesday, is on the verge of uncontrollable spread of the virus. She said the county will do its first reassessment of the impact of the restrictions on Nov. 12, which marks the 14-day incubation period. After that, the restrictions may be lifted, tightened or remain the same depending on the incidence rate and other factors.
In addition to the restrictions, Mayor John Engen asked residents to stay home as much as possible.
Infections in Missoula are increasing rapidly, with 673 total active cases Tuesday, 1,522 close contacts and 29 related hospitalizations. The county currently has an incidence rate of 51, which represents the rate of new cases per 100,000 population, on a rolling seven-day average. Leahy said the county's incidence rate is well above the 25 cases per 100,000 population rate that the Harvard Global Health lnstitute flags as "red zone" beyond which a locality may tip into uncontrolled spread.
The new restrictions, which came in the form of a Health Officer's Order, aim to flatten the curve so Missoula County can keep schools open, continue to serve as a regional health care hub for COVID-19 and non-COVlD care, and keep businesses open.
The restrictions will not apply to voting activities, although the Elections Office will still use six-foot distancing, masking and disinfection.
Under the new restrictions, restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries, and casinos are limited to 50% of their normal operating capacity to allow for adequate group spacing, and tables must be limited to eight people.
Prior to the new order and under Gov. Steve Bullock's Phase Two plan, restaurants, bars, breweries and casinos were able to operate at 75% capacity, with tables of up to 10 people.
Additionally, bars in Missoula County are now required to close at 10 p.m., and all alcohol sales must cease at 10 p.m. in establishments that serve food and alcohol.
Retail businesses, gyms, bowling alleys, and other places of assembly are limited to 50% of their typical number of customers during their busiest hours. Businesses providing grooming, beauty, body art, piercing, massage, spa and similar services must also meet requirements outlined by the health department. Many of those businesses were able to operate at full or 75% capacity under Phase Two of the governor's plan.
"Businesses that have been leaders in best practices won't see much change in their operations," Engen said. "Businesses that have been largely ignoring guidelines and directives will see a change but their employees, customers and suppliers will be safer."
Grant Kier of the Missoula Economic Partnership said that when cases go up, spending in the community goes down.
"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," Kier said. "If we reduce cases and the risk of spread, we reduce financial losses to our local businesses."
Kier said the best thing the community can do to support businesses is to be vigilant and help reduce spread in the coming weeks "so we can get back to capacity as soon as possible."
Events and gatherings are limited to a total of 25 people in circumstances that don't allow for adequate physical distancing, including weddings, dances, sports and other events. Events over 25 people must submit a written COVID-19 event plan to the Missoula City-County Health Department for approval.
Limits on gathering size do not apply to students in classrooms and other school-related activities, however, those limits do apply to spectators and audiences at those activities.
Also during the press conference, Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson said the administration is recommending the district remain in the hybrid model through the week of Thanksgiving, Nov. 27. MCPS trustees were expected to approve the extension at a board meeting Tuesday night. The board had previously voted to remain in the hybrid model through the first quarter, which ends on Nov. 6.
Leahy said data has shown that in Missoula County, structured, organized settings such as schools or the University of Montana "actually do bring protection."
"We are asking you to stay home, travel in small groups," Leahy said. "So much of our spread has occurred outside of structured settings. Please cooperate and try to limit that."
The new order will remain in effect until it is revoked or revised. The health department will reassess the order based on the incidence rate, with the goal of lowering it to 25 cases per 100,000 population for at least two weeks. Other metrics the health department will consider include the capacity of local hospitals to admit both COVID-19 and non-COVID patients, testing resources, and test analysis turn-around time.
If the case incidence trend, hospital or resource status worsens, Leahy siad more restrictive requirements are necessary to control spread.
“We’re doing fairly well in Missoula comparatively, but we're not doing well enough, and the surge of the last couple of weeks has been dramatic, and it's been exhausting,” said Joyce Dombrouski, the chief executive of Providence Montana, which operates St. Patrick Hospital.
Dombrouski said hospital staff are being impacted by community spread, and Tuesday, six of the hospital’s caregivers were not able to come to work. She added that all of the large hospitals in the state of Montana have daily meetings to talk about the hospital capacity.
“The fatigue is very real, and I think my message today to you in the community is we need your help,” she said.