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Missoula County set to relax event requirements

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Movie on the Field 2

The "Centerfield Cinema" audience, sitting socially distanced in the stands and on the outfield at Ogren-Allegiance Park, watches previews ahead of "Purple Rain" last June.

Baseball games, concert venues and other large events are expected to see a relaxing of rules, possibly by late April, in Missoula.

The Missoula City-County Health Board voted Thursday to loosen restrictions in the county's COVID-19 mitigation requirements policy. The order basically allows event managers to set their own rules, with consultation from the health department. Many event requirements will become recommendations.

Under the new rules, there would technically be no cap on attendance at events, with the idea that organizations could begin to safely have large gatherings. The mask ordinance will remain in effect. 

"What we're asking is for those very large events to take into consideration ways to mitigate a lot of people crowding together ... the other piece of that is the reason it's a recommendation instead of a requirement is because all mitigation measures at this point would be recommendations," said Shannon Therriault, director of environmental health for the MCCHD.

"We really want to work with the people who are going to take our recommendations and are trying to figure out how to hold an event safely and to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but if someone is just not interested, frankly, these are recommendations."

MCCHD expects all large events in the county to work with the department. Events over 1,000 people are still expected to consult the health department to talk about how best to control the spread of COVID-19.

On Thursday, the University of Montana said roughly 5,000 people — about 20% capacity — will be allowed into Washington-Grizzly for football games during the spring season.

Missoula County is hopeful the new policy can go into effect around April 19.

News of the change was met with excitement and support from local groups, including the Missoula PaddleHeads, the Missoula County Fairgrounds, Logjam Presents and the Downtown Missoula Partnership. All will benefit greatly from the relaxation of restrictions.

"This really helps us be more efficient with our planning and more focused on the safety of our community," said PaddleHeads Vice President Matt Ellis in a public comment during the meeting.

The change is contingent on two things — the vaccine dose administration rate must be at least 600 per 1,000 Missoula County residents, and the new case incident rate, which is based on a seven-day rolling average, cannot trend above 25 per 100,000 population for the previous 14 days. As of this week, Missoula County has administered at least one dose at a rate of 444 per 1,000 residents. 

As of March 16, Missoula County was at a new case incident rate of 16 per 100,000. That had gone up from 12 per 100,000 the week before. 

The dose rate counts individuals who have at least a first shot of the two-dose version COVID-19 vaccine.

"That gives us something to reach for, that is more transitional and incremental opening up than just waiting for herd immunity," Missoula County Health Officer Ellen Leahy said to the Missoulian on Thursday. "We also know that we can start to relax restrictions, as long as we don't do it like a switch. If we do it, we do it progressively over time."

The new guidelines provide stipulations should there be another surge in cases. The health officer will review case data each week and decide whether additional control measures are needed. 

Nick Holloway, a public information officer with the Vaccine Coordination Team, said Missoula County received 2,800 first-shot doses this week from the state and estimated that the federal pipeline pushed an additional 2,000 to 4,000 first doses into the county through federally affiliated pharmacies and clinics.

If supply was not an issue, Holloway said Missoula County could administer around 15,000 doses of vaccine per week, with the ability to quickly scale up even further.

"The idea is that we're nimble and we adapt quickly," Holloway said. "When I say we could jump from 15,000, that's just the way our team is designed to work."

On Wednesday, Montana confirmed a total of 19 cases of COVID-19 variants in the state. A California variant, a New York variant and the U.K. variant have all been identified.

Missoula County has yet to see a confirmed case of a COVID-19 variant. Beaverhead, Cascade, Glacier, Hill, Jefferson, Madison, Phillips, Roosevelt, Silver Bow and Valley counties all have confirmed variant cases.

Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Contact him on Twitter @jordyhansen or via email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com

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