IIn the early days of the pandemic, a white-clad doctor from Kalispell, Mont., Stood on a podium warning grim warnings of the death rate from Covid-19.
Besides Dr. Annie Bukacek called it the “so-called death rate”.
“Because of inaccurate, incomplete data, fear mongers terrorize people into giving up cherished freedoms,” said Bukacek, a pink stethoscope dangling from under her double-stranded pearl necklace, in a YouTube video that has been viewed 870,000 times.
Looking back at November at a County Health Board meeting in Ravalli County, about 135 miles south. In a scene reminiscent of prehistoric times, people packed the room on folding chairs just a few inches apart, faceless, and sometimes shouted objections to masks and other possible restrictions (“Freedom! Freedom!”), Regardless on the flying microbes.
In early December, this time at the copper-domed Montana State Capitol in Helena, a legislative committee met to set the rules for the meeting, which begins in January. In the ornate chamber dominated by Charles Russell’s nearly 12 by 25 foot painting Lewis and Clark meet Indians in Ross’ HoleRepublican lawmakers – most exposed – hugged, shook hands, and slapped their backs.
When a masked Democratic representative, Sharon Stewart Peregoy, spoke emotionally about Covid-19’s toll in her Crow Indian Reservation District, her GOP colleague Barry Usher – exposed – delivered a verbal blow. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s a waste of my afternoon. I could try to survive my business by doing it. Instead, I have to be up here and listen to you cry.”
The same debate rages across the country when people violate government-issued guidelines and advice, often knowing that they will not be enforced, even as the number of cases increases and health professionals seek help.
A version of “We Are Not the Masked Police” has been voiced by law enforcement, state and local governments and agencies in locations from South Dakota to Michigan to Florida where Governor Ron DeSantis recently extended a ban on penalties and fines for failing to comply Mask requirements.
When Republican governor of Idaho, Brad Little, put new restrictions on in October, lieutenant governor of the state Janice McGeachin backed off and brandished a Bible and a gun in an ad sponsored by a group called the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
But Montana provides a particularly poignant example of what happens when enough people decide that, rather than saving lives, it is preferable to shrug off or downright opposition to preventive measures.
Montana once had one of the lowest fall rates in the nation. Daily cases of infection among the state’s 1 million residents didn’t top 100 until July 10 – a day that saw 454 new cases in neighboring Idaho and adding thousands to states like California (7,989) and Arizona (4,164).
Then Montana rose to the top 10 per capita cases for several weeks recently in a merciless U-turn that mirrors the national crisis.
“Virtually every hospital in Montana is over 80 percent busy,” said Rich Rasmussen, CEO of the Montana Hospital Association, when we spoke in mid-November.
So many healthcare workers were either infected or exposed to the virus that the state signed 200 nurses and respiratory therapists from across the country to ease the burden, and National Guard teams took on non-medical roles in hospitals and the state prison .
The coronavirus “is here and we are on the fire,” said Tara Lee, a nurse at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, a county health agency that was bogged down for months for imposing new restrictions. “We needed help two steps ago. You’re welcome.”
F.or for the longest time Montana was a pale island on the national Covid-19 map, even as trouble spots flared up in the surrounding states.
In late April, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock – then in the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to oust Republican Senator Steve Daines – issued congratulations as he lifted a stay at home and announced the gradual reopening of non-essential stores and locations Worship. “There are very few states in the country that can claim that the number of positive cases has decreased in the past few weeks,” he said.
Though Bullock would mandate masks in mid-July, he had eased corporate restrictions just in time for the magical 16-hour days of sunlight that make Montana a haven for summer vacation. Initial fears that Covid-19 could deal a blow to the state’s vital tourism industry faded as record numbers poured in people from places badly hit by the virus and packaged state parks in record numbers until locals grumbled about being excluded .
By the end of June, Covid-19 had only killed 22 people in Montana. Few places seemed safer – so much space, so few people! Locals and tourists alike went to the rivers, trails, and campsites. For a heady few weeks, life felt almost normal there.
In Gallatin County, health officer Matt Kelley compared this early summer grace period to the early stages of a flood. “You are going through a time when you can sandbags keep the floods off,” he told me. “At some point the flood will seep through.”
In Montana, the sandbags failed in mid-July. The long, flat line in the graph showing Covid-19 cases rose ominously to the top.
Bill Burg, chairman of the Flathead County Health Board, calls himself “a numbers person”. When the retired CPA uses the term “exponential” to refer to the growth of Covid-19 cases, he is speaking literally. State data shows the leaps and bounds of active cases in Flathead County: Sept. 1, 114; October 1, 585; Nov. 1, 883. Burg predicted the number would reach 2,000 by mid-November. He was gone for a couple of days. As of November 20, there were 2,095 active cases in the county. As of December 1, 47 percent of the state’s accumulated 63,693 cases had occurred within the past 30 days. (The daily cases have steadily decreased since then.)
“We have reached our limits,” said Rasmussen, who spent years in Florida before coming to Montana. “In my career, I’ve had to attend 258 tropical events” – hurricanes, floods – “and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
R.asmussen said he was unable to understand why the same people who glow cheerfully orange during the big game season so they won’t get shot by other hunters are so stressful about wearing a piece of cloth lest they get a deadly virus .
Tamalee Robinson, then interim health officer for Flathead County, made a statement: “Montans are completely independent and that isn’t always a good sign for public health.”
Kalispell belongs to Flathead County, where Bukacek – the man named by “Dr. Annie “and the city’s April Emergency Declaration as” Martial Law “Practices. She is part of an opposition faction that paralyzed the district’s health department and shot down proposed measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. (Bukacek did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
The board, hobbled by a 4-4 split, tried twice to limit gatherings to 500 people even when a holiday craft show was planned.
“As a health care worker, I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back by half of my community and half of the health department,” Kalispell nurse Lee said at the November board meeting.
The sharp rift runs like a fault line across the state. The Ravalli County Health Commissioner resigned in July and said she was in a “no-win situation” due to the decision of the locally elected officials not to follow the governor’s instructions [on masking] without my input. “She later put her resignation on hold until a new officer could be hired.
In August, after a group of residents – angry at the cancellation of a fair and rodeo – confronted her at the hospital where she worked, the Powell County Health Commissioner left waved copies of the constitution and blocked patient entry.
Then the entire Pondera County Health Department resigned in November, citing inadequate pay for the long pandemic hours, lack of support from the County Commission for efforts to prevent the virus from spreading, and “negative conversations” in the northern Montana community.
In Gallatin County – the home of Bozeman, the fast-growing university town derisively dubbed “Boze-angels” because of the influx of money outsiders – health officer Kelley has held her own despite almost daily protests outside his home. “From where you stand in front of my house, you can see the hospital where we have 20 people [with Covid-19], some in intensive care, “he said. “It can be frustrating.”
And the day after Thanksgiving, Robinson filed her resignation as Flathead County’s interim health officer, citing a “toxic environment” that resulted in the departure of several department employees. Widespread opposition beyond members of the Dissident Health Board made it impossible to perform their mandatory community health protection duties, she said. “The sheriff’s department came out and said they weren’t going to do anything but education. Prosecutors say [the regulations] are not enforceable. The [county] Commissioners have publicly spoken out against it and the health department has voted against it. There is no support for the department at any level. “
As the numbers in Montana trended upwards, the divide between the factions yawned wider and deeper.
In November, Bitterroot Valley emergency doctors urged people to wear masks and follow other precautions. They said, “We are on the verge of a disaster.” On the same day, the district health department’s meeting lasted more than three hours when exposed residents railed against such measures.
Those in attendance included Alan and Terri Lackey, who have become an integral part of county meetings, protesting masks and restrictions, and citing internet research that shows these measures are ineffective. Alan Lackey, who drives a white Isuzu soldier under two American flags and with a sign reading “Make America Again” on the door in 1996, asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality statistics at the meeting. He said he “just wants to get back to reality here in Ravalli County,” adding, “I just don’t see people fall, bodies pile up.”
Terri Lackey shares her husband’s skepticism about the toll of Covid-19. “I have so much common sense that it oozes out of my ears,” she said. “Old people in nursing homes, that’s what they usually do. They die.”
At the beginning of the meeting, the community leaders sought the support of the health department for preventive measures, which should be rejected. “When would there be more enforcement? Is that even on the table? “asked the councilor from Hamilton, Claire Kemp.
“For me personally, it’s basically the status quo … or we’re pulling the trigger for a mandate with related quotes and I’m not for it,” replied a member of the health committee.
In Flathead County, a judge threw the case back when the state tried to bring action against five companies alleged to have repeatedly violated the governor’s mask policy. Now these companies are suing the state.
T.There is a lot of “not my job” here when it comes to enforcing policies to protect Montana residents, and a lot of frustration as a result.
“I would say any time local political officials deliberately circumvent their responsibilities to citizens, they are facing a real challenge to the rule of law,” said Raph Graybill, the governor’s chief legal advisor.
Flathead County’s attorney Travis Ahner points a finger back at the state government. “In relation to [the governor’s] Guidelines … it doesn’t really say whether or not there is any type of seniority related to enforcement, ”he said.
Should the county get involved in enforcement, there could be lawsuits from companies harmed by the restrictions, Ahner said, adding that he sees his role as advising health officials on the legal ramifications of their actions. It is up to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services to enforce these rules, he argued.
This is the agency that has charged five Flathead County companies with alleged breach of the Mask Policy, a charge one owner has vehemently denied. “It’s a political witch hunt,” said Douglas White, owner of Your Lucky Turn Casino in Bigfork, a town on the shores of Flathead Lake. White accused the Democratic governor – at the time in the middle of his Senate bid – of targeting “high profile Christian-Conservative family businesses,” a claim Graybill wearily denied. “Public health officials had nothing to do with the Senate campaign,” he said. “It wasn’t popular politically. It didn’t help anyone in the Senate. “Bringing a case to court, like the unsuccessful one against the Flathead deals, is ‘deeply the exception.’
This brings enforcement back to the local health authorities, whose instructions are only as effective as companies’ willingness to submit to them. For example, in progressive Missoula County, most bars and restaurants ended up complying with the Department of Health’s closure after it was reported that guidelines were not being followed.
But the remote counties are just as conservative as Missoula is liberal. Missoula County’s voters voted for Joe Biden by 60 to 36 percent over Donald Trump. The results were nearly even in Flathead (where Trump scored 64 percent on Bidens 34) and Ravalli (67 to 31 percent). Nationwide, Trump won 57 percent of the vote over Biden’s 41 percent.
Walk past the bricked-up shop windows on Kalispell’s main street and you may not even know that a pandemic is coming. Some stores have signs referring to the governor’s mask policy. others ask for consideration for fellow customers without explicitly mentioning masks. Some have no Covid-related signs at all. Some people wear face masks; many not.
The same applies to Stevensville, the town in the Bitterroot Valley with 2,000 inhabitants, where Alan and Terri Lackey founded a group – Stand Together for Freedom – to crack down on government guidelines. Alan Lackey calls the members of the health committee “Branch Covidians,” a reference to the apocalyptic religious sect that was involved in the 1993 fatal crackdown by federal agents outside of Waco, Tex. “It’s like a cult, this Covid thing,” he said, calling masks. a symbol of compliance and control. “
“I’ll be damned if I wear one,” he added. “I’ll go to my grave before I carry one.”
And there it is: the attitude that gets law enforcement to turn their attention elsewhere and health officials to raise their hands and stop.
In Helena, the Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee voted with a Republican majority, despite testimony from health professionals and community members and opposition from local health and government officials, to hold the meeting, which began Jan. 4, in person, without asking for masks and yourself to distance or tests. “I would envision we would have members who get sick,” said Jason Ellsworth, Senator of Hamilton, Ravalli County. “It is possible that we have members who will die. But that possibility exists regardless of whether we are here or not.”
A day earlier, a group called Stand Up Montana sued Bullock over his mask mandate and other restrictions, citing the loss of business and an attempt to overturn his policies. The new governor, Greg Gianforte, has consistently said that although he plans to wear a mask in the Capitol, he views the decision as a matter of personal responsibility.
By Thanksgiving Day, Flathead County had lost 39 residents to Covid-19. Robinson’s voice cracked when she spoke to me in November about a member of the health committee who was strongly against restrictions. “I want her to be the one who speaks to everyone [of those] Families and tell them this is 100 percent viable, ”she said. (Forty-four Flathead County residents died of Covid-19 on December 13th.)
In her resignation letter, Robinson condemned these persistent divisions. “Finally, it is clear that the underlying motivations of several members of your group are more closely related to ideological bias than the simple desire to do what is best for the health of the community,” she wrote.
After submitting the letter, she told me in a telephone interview, “I’m here watching people die and no one at any level is going to do anything about it.”