Big-city coronavirus panic hasn’t completely evaded Montana, which has suffered fewer coronavirus victims than all but four states. With only 400 positive cases of COVID-19 and only 8 deaths state-wide, Montana’s beautiful rurality has surely assisted its relative healthiness. Montana hospitals are not overwhelmed, and in fact, they are almost empty because elective procedures have been postponed. All things considered, coronavirus has proven to be anything but a pandemic in the Big Sky State.
However, some Montana municipalities and counties have overreaction. Carter County threatened to shut down the Ekalaka’s only grocery store and told residents to ask permission of the health department before leaving the county. Power River County provided snitching-reports to residents to tell on their neighbors’ poor social distancing. Valley County briefly implemented an arm-band policy for out-of-towners (the commissioners apologized after our report, which was subsequently picked up by Todd Starnes and Rush Limbaugh).
And now, Lewis & Clark County County is closing campgrounds with facilities and power because people might touch bathroom doorknobs and playground equipment.
Even though Montanans are perfectly capable of using the bathroom outdoors and don’t need potty oversight, it was not enough for Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Drenda Niemann to merely lock restroom facilities or put up a sign to stay off equipment. The Great Outdoors itself, at least that which is publicly owned, is now off-limits to county residents who might think some fresh air would do them good.
Niemann said, “Toilets, showers, picnic tables, RV hookups – those are all likely to be touched by many hands, leading to potential transmission. Social distancing may be difficult. While we agree with the governor that people should get outside and enjoy fresh air and exercise, we believe there are ways to do so that don’t involve as much risk.”
As Niemann herself noted, her declaration exceeds the recommendations of Governor Bullock, but his executive order placed public health nurses as the highest law in the land, even county sheriffs who were told to submit to their orders or face a misdemeanor.
Many Lewis & Clark residents are not property owners, as the homeowner rate is only 68.7%. More than 30% of residents live in rental units, most of which are apartments without adequate outdoor space. As Montana progressives are consistently lobbying for access to public lands, it seems that the concern has been thrown out the window in a pandemic.
Niemann said, “We continue to see and hear about people congregating, and that worries us.”
The Lewis and Clark Health Department told the public, “Anyone with a complaint about group gatherings or non-essential businesses remaining open may call the health department at [redacted].”
Meanwhile, most health professionals are encouraging people to get fresh air and exercise, which boosts the immune system and staves off mental and emotional problems common with mass social distancing.