Headlines Richland County Struggles With Decision to Close Fair Due...

Richland County Struggles With Decision to Close Fair Due to COVID Concerns

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While the Board of Health recommended a fair closure, the decision has not yet been made by Richland County Commissioners. Residents are struggling with the potential loss.

[Sidney, MT] Not many events are more important to Richland County residents than the annual fair and rodeo. Attracting thirty-thousand people to the Eastern Montana town of Sidney is ordinarily a boon for area businesses and the main tourist attraction for the county of roughly eleven-thousand residents. With nightly rodeo events and major country artists headlining a concert at the end of fair week, it is a staple of the community. But now, whether or not the fair will proceed at all is up in the air.

Yesterday, the Richland County Health Board met as a part of its regular schedule (they meet every other Monday) and voted to recommend scuttling the fair due to concerns related to COVID-19. The Health Board is not to be confused with the health department. The Health Board serves in an advisory role to the health department and includes those without training in human medicine.

In Richland County, the Health Board consists of three county commissioners (Shane Gorder, Duane Mitchell, and Loren Young), Judge Ray Trumpower (from the town of Fairview), the former public works director, Terry Meldahl, Melissa Boyer (a “community member at large”) and Kari Johnson (a representative of veterinary medicine).

The Health Board also has advisory members that include the Richland County Sheriff, John Dynneson. Reportedly, Sheriff Dynneson voiced concerns that it would not be easy to enforce standards of social distancing largely approved by Montana’s health community and which the fair board was asked to maintain during the fair and rodeo. The discussion of problems related to enforcing standards of distancing led to a motion and a vote to recommend canceling the festivities.

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Judge Trumpower explained his reasoning for voting for canceling the fair and rodeo in a comment left on the Facebook page of the Richland County Republican Central Committee, which was the first to report the matter in social media.

Trumpower said, “It’s unfortunate that the first discussion of this is on a political site. I was treasurer of the RCRCC for years. Before being elected judge made that impossible. So I am not a liberal. But I seconded the motion, and voted for the recommendation. We had a large event. Plans were set to do it safely. They were not followed, and we had cases show up.”

Trumpower referred to a number of events hosted at the Richland County fairgrounds, probably including the demolition derby over the weekend. It’s unknown if the few additional cases of coronavirus were in any way linked to events at the fairgrounds. Those driving by the fairgrounds could see the large crowd sitting together in the grandstands, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder and mingling without social-distancing.

Trumpower continued, “We had another big event. Again, rules were not followed. Hopefully, we don’t get more from it. The fair is huge compared to those. After the shutdown, we had many businesses close to closing. Not sure some can sustain another shutdown. How many local businesses are you willing to trade for a fair?”

Not many seemed in agreement on the Republican page.

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Rebecca Miller wrote, “Is this how we’re going to start the school year and the next athletic season? Montana already has one of the highest suicide rates in the country so lets just keep isolating everyone. People are smart enough to know if they want to take the chance and attend a public event it’s MY choice.”

Emily Casterline argued, “Can we just call it a protest? Then a gathering of people seems to be just fine.”

Heather Arneson added, “If your mask protects you and your gloves protect you then how come you’re voting to cancel an outdoor event? This is ludicrous.”

Comments were more mixed on the Sidney Herald Facebook page, a left-of-center local newspaper. Many derided the decision, but some spoke up in support. Most, but not all, who supported the closure seemed to be in the “millennial” generation of younger people.

Sarah Wilson said, “I think that it is very much necessary, yes it sucks that we won’t get to do the fun final bash before school starts back up for the kids, but it’s necessary for EVERYONES health and safety.”

Yvonne Gebhardt wrote, “As an operator of one of the food booths run by volunteers, I’m not sure we can staff the booth with people who are not in one of the vulnerable categories. And if one of our workers showed positive, that would most likely shut our booth for the remainder of the fair. We would be left with a lot of product, huge expenses, and exposing too many people to COVID-19.”

Countering Gebhardt were several business owners who weren’t volunteering at fair booths, like Gebhardt, but who instead were relying on the fair for their income and livelihood.

Even still, most comments seemed to be against the decision. Travis Berndt added, “Keep it open and leave it up to personal choice. If you don’t feel comfortable going, you don’t HAVE to go. Food booths or any vendors that aren’t comfortable participating….well don’t.”

The decision will not ultimately be made by the Board of Health, however. The county commissioners will discuss the recommendation by the board and tentatively decide whether or not to cancel the fair and rodeo on Monday, June 29th at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The agenda has yet to be added to the county calendar by the Clerk and Recorder.

There have been mixed signals on how to best share public comments, according to some in the social media threads. Some have claimed that county commissioners have told them to email their thoughts, and others claimed they were told to attend the June 29th meeting.

While they are not obligated, it is assumed by some that the commissioners will act in accordance with what they are told by the Montana Association of Counties (MACo). MACo offers legal counsel, defense services, and administrative services. MACo’s control over local counties, in competition with the voters themselves, has been a subject of concern in Montana for several years.

The Richland County Health Board announced their meeting to the public within the state-mandated 48 hours notice but did not post the agenda to the community calendar. Minutes are not yet available to the public.

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