A private prom slated for Wednesday has been canceled and myriad other local events are now up in the air after Lewis and Clark Public Health issued an order Tuesday limiting gatherings and events to no more than 250 people in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The order, which goes into effect Wednesday, prohibits events with more than 250 attendees, sets stringent guidelines for events with between 50 and 249 attendees, and provides the ability for the county to enforce the order.
The health department cited state law as giving it the authority to cancel events and prosecute organizers and attendees.
"This order will be enforced through a complaint driven process where law enforcement will observe and document violations of this order and provide report to Lewis and Clark County Attorney for enforcement against the event or gathering organizer and attendees," the order states.
Any event organizer in violation of the order may face a misdemeanor charge for each attendee at the event, according to the order.
The move comes on the heels of a joint press conference held July 1 by Health Officer Drenda Niemann, local elected officials and business owners, during which they warned the public about possible restrictions if residents did not cancel events of 50 or more people, wear masks in public and practice social distancing.
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Niemann said the timing may look like the order is targeting specific events, such as the Helena 2020 Bruin-Bengal Junior/Senior Summer Prom for high school students scheduled to take place Wednesday evening, but that the health department has been working on the order for months, coordinating with local law enforcement, the county attorney and city and county officials.
"We put in a lot of effort to make sure we have the support to back this order," Niemann said in an interview Tuesday. "It's unfortunate that public health has to be the heavy hand. It's unfortunate that the community isn't stepping in."
The private prom organizers had contracted with the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office to use reserve deputies as security for the event. Capt. Kevin Wright said in an interview Tuesday that in light of the health department's order, that contract has been rescinded.
Both Niemann and Wright said that law enforcement will not be shutting down events, but will observe and document clear violations of the order and turn that information over to the county attorney for consideration of prosecution.
County health officials also asked during the July 1 press conference that organizers of events of 50 or more people submit a plan as to how they intend to adhere to county health guidelines.
Niemann said large events are of particular concern, and Lewis and Clark Public Health is currently reviewing more than 30 plans for such gatherings in the area.
Events like the Lincoln Parade and Rodeo and Helena Valley Timing Association's Blast from the Past Car Show were not approved by LCPH, but the events were held anyway, according to Niemann.
"We've been identifying issues related to events for over a month now," she said. "Many of these event organizers are unwilling to make edits to their plans."
Denise Wolf, a representative of the nonprofit organizing the Helena 2020 Bruin-Bengal Junior/Senior Summer Prom, said she felt the order was retaliatory and called it "conveniently placed" with the time the day before the dance. She now has the arduous task of informing the nearly 400 teens that their prom has been canceled a second time, she said.
"They are the silent victims in all this," Wolf said. "The mental health of these kids has really, really deteriorated."
Just like the threat of a speeding ticket hopefully prevents speeding, Neimann said she hopes this order will prevent organizers from holding large events, and in the case of the private prom, it worked.
"I was potentially facing 340 misdemeanors and 90 days in jail," Wolf said. "To me, that seems like overkill. Had it been just one, I might have pressed on."
According to Wolf, she submitted a plan to LCPH for review that included "COVID tracking" strategies. Attendees of the prom would have provided contact information that would have allowed for easier contact tracing should an outbreak have occurred. Sanitation measures were also in place. And the event was moved to an outdoor location, the Little Red School House.
Niemann added that federal, state and local epidemiologists are linking COVID-19 outbreaks to large events.
"This comes from months of epidemiological investigations; this is not a gut feeling," she said.
She reiterated the county's plea for community members to take personal responsibility.
"We have said for over a month now that these events are not safe," she said in the interview. "Would you like to be the organizer who holds an event and we lose a life because of it?"
Montana again set a record high for the number of coronavirus cases added in a single day, with 80 new cases reported Tuesday.
Most of the new cases — 55 — are in Yellowstone County. The county now has 199 active cases, according to data from the state, far more than the next closest county, Gallatin, with 84 active cases.
There are 19 active cases in Lewis and Clark County.
During the July 1 press conference, St. Peter's Health Medical Group President Dr. Todd Wampler said his staff continues to prepare for the potential "super spreader" events pose to overburden the hospital. He said he believes the hospital is prepared to handle such a scenario, but that "our resources are not unlimited."
Niemann said the decision was not an easy one to make and that she sympathizes with those effected by the order.
"This is Montana in the summer time. People want to be together," she said. "But it's just not the time. We have to be thinking small."