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Health-care providers want fair significantly downsized

by Kianna Gardner
Daily Inter Lake | July 31, 2020 9:03 AM

At a Flathead County Fair Board meeting Thursday evening, a local pediatrician presented a letter signed by 140 Flathead Valley health-care professionals who do not believe the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo should occur as currently planned, considering school is expected to start back up soon after the event.

The letter highlighted concerns over the size and scope of the fair and asked that the event “be significantly scaled down as other communities have done.” It continued, “the proposed plan of carnival rides and large crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic with rapidly rising cases in our country is dangerous to our community and jeopardize our plans to send our children back to school for in-person learning this fall.”

The letter comes about two weeks after several local physicians expressed their concerns about the fair at a Flathead County Board of Health meeting. While many acknowledge that fair officials have worked hard thus far to find ways in which fair-goers can adhere to sanitation and social-distancing guidelines set forth by federal, state and local officials, some say these measures aren’t aggressive enough.

At this time the event is still expected to offer an evening concert, carnival rides and a slack format rodeo that could draw up to 700 participants over the course of the fair.

And although there has been some downsizing — the elimination of the party pit at the concert and a decrease in the number of carnival rides — health-care professionals said the events have the potential to trigger a large outbreak in the area, which could impact back-to-school plans, stress hospital capacity, prompt local businesses to temporarily close again, and more.

One parent at the public meeting, who offered a disclaimer that she “is a product of 4-H and FFA” and admires those aspects of the fair in particular, said she is concerned about the fair ending four days prior to when her child is expected to go back to public school.

“We just want our kids to go back to school and we need to give them every opportunity for that,” she said. “And it’s not just the kids; parents need their kids to go back to school so they can go back to work. I mean this is an economic priority for our community to get these kids back to school.”

Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson said at the meeting there are nearly 100 active cases in Flathead County and health department staff are monitoring more than 400 individuals, which include close contacts to those positive cases. She also said the county had 38 out-of-state individuals test positive in the county since last Thursday when she again relayed numbers to the Fair Board — numbers that are not reflected in local total case counts.

Robinson added that not only are children a common demographic at the fair, but individuals ages 20 to 30 also frequent events such as the concert and rodeo. According to Robinson, that age group is one where COVID-19 cases are currently spiking in the county.

Robinson also commended fair staff on their efforts to ensure the event proceeds safely, but said there are still aspects of the fair that need to be “firmed up.”

“I know Mark has done a fabulous job trying to make the fair as safe as possible,” Robinson said, addressing the board. “My concern is, are those plans going to be executed the way they are planned? As the fair board, you are the sponsoring entity of the fair so you are responsible for making sure those plans are executed correctly. That means maintaining social distancing, and making sure everyone wears a mask.”

How staff can efficiently and effectively enforce masking and social-distancing practices has been an unknown since planning began.

Fairgrounds Manager Mark Campbell said they have installed signs throughout the fairgrounds “strongly encouraging” people to wear masks and social distance and will have employees policing the grounds to make sure people adhere to those rules. However, Robinson said there will most likely be people who still refuse to wear a mask, and staff should, “plan for some issues.”

ASIDE FROM the large events, much of the Fair Board’s discussion revolved around how the 4-H component of the fair could still move forward.

A local 4-H representative said the majority of parents she has spoken with say they are willing to wear masks and properly social distance if it means their children can participate in the fair’s livestock events. However, another 4-H representative did say some parents have said they “are not comfortable” attending the fair this year after hearing concerns from other parents.

Although health-care professionals and some parents have urged fair officials to consider eliminating or scaling back large events, they also said they could “see a path forward” for the 4-H and FFA events to still take place.

Board members and Campbell have said since the start of planning the most important aspect of the fair is the educational component for youth.

Toward the end of the meeting, all board members said they are still willing to let the fair proceed, assuming “necessary adjustments” continue to be made, although specifications on what those adjustments may be were not provided.

“I am starting to get to that breaking point of yea or nay on some of these events,” Board Chairman Sam Nunnally said. “But I’m still a go forward at this point.” He added that he sees the fair as a means to offer the community “the slightest bit of normalcy” amid the pandemic.

Board member Jessica Treweek said she would also like to see the fair occur and suggested attendance should be a matter of personal choice — a point that some locals at Thursday’s meeting agreed with. She said as a mother, she also wants to see her children go back to school, but “as a U.S. citizen I think people need to be able to make their own choices.”

But other residents said that choice could have economic ripple effects in the community, should there be an outbreak.

Campbell said fair staff will continue to adjust the fair’s schedule and offerings as the event draws closer and will focus on how sanitary and social-distancing guidelines can be met. He said, “this plan has not been set in stone since Day One.”

According to Montana law, as public health officer, Robinson has the authority to “take steps to limit contact between people in order to protect the public health from imminent threats, including but not limited to ordering the closure of buildings or facilities where people congregate and canceling events.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com