More summer events are being canceled due to COVID-19 amidst uncertainty about when restrictions on large gatherings will be lifted.
Some large events have been already cancelled preemptively for this year, such as Whitehall’s Montana Mule Days and the Governor’s Cup road race in Helena, both typically held in June, said Jefferson County Events Coordinator Bruce Binkowski at a meeting last week with the Jefferson County Commissioners, public health and emergency personnel, as well as other county officials and event organizers. They met to discuss how to handle upcoming events as the state moves through the phases of Gov. Steve Bullock’s plan to reopen Montana in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The annual Wizard and Fairy Festival, scheduled for June 27 at Tizer Gardens in Jefferson City, is also canceled, said Belva Lotzer on Friday.
It usually brings in about 2,000 people, she said.
“Can’t do it this year,” said Lotzer.
So far, Frontier Days is still holding on the last week of July, said Binkowski.
Frontier Days, typically held in late June in Whitehall, can attract up to 1,500 people, said Whitehall Mayor Mary Hensleigh.
Jefferson County Commission Chairman Leonard Wortman warned that if upcoming summer events in the county continue to be canceled due to COVID-19, it could cause some local businesses to fail.
Wortman said he’s received seven to eight letters from local merchants, already “in really tough shape” from the state’s stay-at-home order, who said that canceling Frontier Days and the summer music events could cause them to go out of business.
These small businesses rely on these activities to get them through the year, he said.
At the same time, members of the Jefferson County Health Commission and public health and emergency officials wanted to know how much authority they have over limiting crowds in light of Bullock’s three phase plan.
“That is the million dollar question … no one has that crystal ball,” said Jefferson County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Doug Dodge of when Bullock will move the state from Phase 1 to Phase 2 and finally, to Phase 3.
Bullock officially launched Phase 1 of his plan on April 22, It allows gatherings of 10 or less, and loosens restrictions for churches, restaurants, bars, personal care and Main Street businesses.
Phase 2 allows for groups of up to 50, while Phase 3 is business as usual, according to the Governor’s directive.
Meanwhile, the Headwaters Country Jam plans to proceed as planned for June, according to its website and Facebook page.
Binkowski said and Rockin’ the Rivers is still on schedule.
The Jefferson County Fair and Rodeo is on hold, but organizers are still planning as if it will proceed in August, while the Boulder Music and Arts Festival is still on for September and so is Halloween in October, said Binkowski.
Binkowski said the Rockin’ the Rivers music festival can bring in thousands of people and the fair attracts about 1,500.
The Clancy Days committee decided Thursday not to have the event on June 13, but is leaving the option open for later in the summer, said Binkowski in a Friday email.
As to how much revenue these events bring in, Binkowski said Jefferson County doesn’t keep track of those numbers.
“However, we do talk to many of the merchants to get an idea of the impact these events have on their individual businesses. The message I get is any event, large or small, in the county, is a plus for local businesses where the event takes place. The larger events such as Frontier Days in Whitehall and the Jefferson County Fair and Rodeo in Boulder do create a substantial economic impact on the community,” said Binkowski in an email.
Dodge said it’s still unknown what phase the state will be at in July and August, and that the criteria for moving from one phase to another is also unknown.
Wortman said another burden on businesses is all the cleaning and sanitizing they have to do.
This is a serious disease, but there are other serious diseases that haven’t shut down the economy, he said, adding that while he’s in the vulnerable population group, it’s hard to see keeping this up when COVID-19 isn’t going away and will likely come back in the fall.
“What will we have left when this virus is over,” he said.
The state needs to open up as it needs to protect peoples’ livelihoods too, said Wortman.
Commissioner Cory Kirsch agreed.
“How far do we keep this going before we crush the entire economy?” he asked.
County Attorney Steve Haddon said state law gives the health commission and health officers the authority to protect the community from an “imminent threat,” and it could close things down under Phase 3 if there is solid evidence to back up that claim.
Otherwise, the county lets the event proceed, he said.
However, Haddon said that if summer comes and the state is in Phase 3, then he cannot support a local decision to shut things down.
The Montana Code Annotated 50-2-118, Powers and duties of local health officers, does not define “imminent threats.”
At the same time, the county is under an obligation to follow the Governor’s order concerning the phased reopening due to COVID-19, notwithstanding what that data may say, said Haddon.
Haddon suggested the county reach out to organizers and promoters to let them know there is a possibility of still being in Phase 1 or Phase 2 and the county will not be able to allow the events if that is the case.
Binkowski said that of the groups he’s talked to, all are waiting to see what unfolds due to economic factors.
They are waiting until the last minute to pull the plug, he said.
Jefferson County Heath Commission Chairperson Christina Binkowski said the commission will go with the advice of the county attorney.
Haddon said he has an obligation to follow the governor’s directive, but he too would like to see these events go forward.
“We’re all going a little bit stir crazy here,” he said.