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The coronavirus affects a small town in Montana

When Steve Cunell won a seat on the city council last year in this city of 8,000 people, he decided to deal with holes and affordable housing.

Instead, he finds himself at the center of a heated debate over how to fight the coronavirus, which is growing in Montana like never before.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who is in the final stretch of a tough U.S. Senate race and is reluctant to impose restrictions that could hurt his campaign, urged the hardest-hit counties to consider closing bars and imposing on a mask for the whole mandate.

There was little appetite for this in the conservative Flathead County, where the health council is dominated by an outspoken doctor who claims the pandemic is a scam.

This left the Whitefish City Council.

“We are the last line of defense,”

; Kunel, a 49-year-old high school social studies teacher, told colleagues during an online public meeting this week. “Will we lead?” Or will we just follow the unbelievers in the county? “

Places like Whitefish could once afford to view the pandemic as a distant problem in the big city. By mid-September, 140 people had died in sparsely populated Montana.

But that figure has doubled in the past five weeks as a new wave of infections sweeps the country. More than 85,000 cases were reported across the country on Friday, at most one day after the pandemic began.

The worst outbreaks are in rural areas of the Midwest and the Rockies. With 4,693 new cases last week, Montana had the third highest infection rate in the country, after only the Dakota.

The rise in Montana overcame efforts to track contacts and strained health systems in the state.

And as events in Whitefish show, efforts to stop the exponential increase are being pushed against a culture that boasts gross independence and freedom from government rules.

At the start of the pandemic, Whitefish, a portal to ski areas and Glacier National Park, was moving more decisively than many other communities to contain the virus.

The Whitefish Mountain Resort looms above Whitefish, Mont., At the entrance to Glacier National Park.

The Whitefish Mountain Resort looms above Whitefish, Mont., At the entrance to Glacier National Park.

(Richard Reed / Los Angeles Times)

Last spring, the municipal council ordered hotels and properties for short-term rent to accept only key workers, a requirement that remained in effect until the end of May.

Whitefish is also one of the first cities in Montana to make people wear masks – although the governor will soon issue a mandate across the country.

Yet from the beginning, there was strong local opposition to such restrictions.

The leading resistance was Dr. Ani Bukacek, a 62-year-old internist known for her far-right views and opposition to vaccination.

Flathead County commissioners appointed her to the county health council last December after firing two other doctors with more public health experience – changes that the commissioners aimed to increase diversity of opinion.

Bukacek became the hero of anti-blocking activists across the country last spring after speaking to a local church congregation alleging that the federal government was exaggerating the death toll from the coronavirus.

“People are being terrorized by the fears of giving up their cherished freedoms,” she told members of the freedom scholarship.

For her presentation, she wore a lab coat and a stethoscope, which have been viewed more than 860,000 times on YouTube.

The congregation is led by Chuck Baldwin, who has been described by the Montana Human Rights Network as “an unofficial reverend in the police movement.” He has opposed government procurement, continuing to provide personal services.

Dr. Ani Bukacek, center, in black, joins the demonstrators in Kalispel, who are protesting against the demands for a mask in schools.

Dr. Ani Bukacek, center, in black, joins protesters in Kalispel, Montana, protesting against mask requirements in schools.

Dr. Ani Bukacek

Dr Ani Bukacek opposes restrictions on the slow spread of the coronavirus, saying the death toll is exaggerated.

Bukacek and a small group of allies protested several times a week in front of schools and government buildings to demand an end to the disguise of demands and other state restrictions that they equate to martial law.

Their message seemed plausible last summer, as deaths and deaths remained low, even as more tourists than expected visited Whitefish and the national park.

Eventually, it became clear that Flathead County, with a population of 100,000, would not escape the suffering that so many other parts of the country have experienced.

Whitefish’s first major outbreak struck a nursing home in August, infecting 43 of the 52 patients – eventually killing 13 of them.

The county’s largest hospital, the Kalispel Regional Medical Center, soon began seeing more visits to its coronavirus ward.

Erica Lengacher, a 46-year-old critical care nurse who works at night in the ward, can cope with the stress of caring for dying patients. That was part of the job.

It was harder to deal with the indifference that opponents of basic security measures seemed to the victims of the pandemic.

“I just felt a deep, deep sadness that while I saw patients suffering and dying, there was a feeling that our community was moving forward and not really interested,” she said.

“I realize that there is a historical tension between public health and individual freedoms,” she said. “But much of our community is ignoring the mandate of the state mask, and I still can’t understand how this has become so politicized and divisive.”

The number of patients in the coronavirus ward has hovered around 29 in recent days, but managers are recruiting more nurses in case things get worse.

Recent outbreaks in Flathead County – where the total number of people known to have been infected has doubled to more than 2,800 in the past three weeks – have been traced to large gatherings in four churches, four weddings, three political events and two trade fairs.

This week, the district health department advised residents to stay home as much as possible and limit contact outside their families to no more than six people a week, each for 15 minutes or less. The recommendations were widely ignored.

Tamali St. James Robinson, a temporary health official, said in an interview that he had the power to make such measures mandatory, but that more rules would be useless as officials refused to enforce existing ones.

District Attorney Travis Aner said he was focused on crime and saw no point in cracking down on business for masked violations.

Tamali St. James Robinson, a temporary public health official in Flathead County, declined to impose restrictions on the coronavirus.

James Robinson, a temporary public health officer in Flathead County, declined to impose restrictions on the coronavirus.

(Richard Reed / Los Angeles Times)

For their part, district commissioners issued a statement this month in support of “Montana’s constitutional rights to make choices about personal protection for themselves.”

“Where does that leave me, only me there?” Robinson asked.

As for the district health council, Bukacek prevailed in the final battle over whether to limit social gatherings.

“Statistically, for practical purposes, COVID in Montana has 100% survival,” she said last week during an online public board meeting.

“No, it’s not like that!” cried Dr. Jeffrey Tyden, a local infectious disease specialist who was present to warn that without immediate action, things would probably get much worse.

A minute later, he interrupted her again to say that he was so fed up with her presentation that he was leaving the system.

“I’m not saying people who died don’t matter,” she said after he left.

At the end of the night, the members of the board were left with one proposal: no more than 500 people gather.

They rejected it by 5 to 3 votes.

This drew criticism from the governor, who said he was disappointed that the board was ignoring experts and that “some were trying to politicize the virus” to protect health and safety.

“The message was strong and clear that if the spread of the virus is not controlled in the Flathead area, schools will have to be closed, parents will not work, businesses will be hurt and the hospital will be left without beds,” Bullock told reporters.

He announced this week that state investigators had conducted on-site inspections of more than a dozen companies in Flathead County and that authorities would ask a judge to temporarily close five establishments considered “gross offenders” due to violating mask requirements and social standards for distancing. .

The biggest threat can be winter, because the virus spreads most easily when people are indoors.

At Whitefish, temperatures dropped on Friday when the first major snowstorm of the season hit.

“It’s time for action and unfortunately we have fallen,” Kunel told his colleagues at a meeting of the Municipal Council this week.

The city governor suggested writing a letter to the health council to encourage him to act. An adviser said another letter to the business could persuade them to cooperate.

Kunel saw no point.

“The county will do nothing, no matter what letters we write,” he said.

He wanted the Council to vote to close the bars by 22:00 – before they become crowded and noisy – and to limit restaurants to 25% of capacity.

But the only thing the council decided was to meet again on Monday to consider imposing restrictions during the Halloween weekend, when Whitefish traditionally launches a popular crawl at the downtown bar.

In an interview, Kunel said Whitefish needed to find a balance between protecting citizens and the economy that had eluded national, state and county leaders.

“There was a failure of top-level management,” he said. “Responsibility continues to be pushed down, and it has found its way into our tours.”

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