Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Roger Dey

July 4th events OK'd to move ahead


Social distancing and personal responsibility will be paramount during this year's annual Independence Day Parade and Lincoln Rodeo.

Both events, which have historically been vital to Lincoln's economy, were at risk of being cancelled due to challenges this year related to COVID-19 restrictions, but "robust" discussions at the county level, sparked by an announcement the parade had been canceled, helped clear the way for them to move ahead.

Last Thursday, June 24, Lewis and Clark Public Health informed the Lincoln Valley Chamber of Commerce they couldn't approve their plan for social distancing during the parade.

"It sounded like there are just too few ways to control the amount of people present and their proximity to one another," Radford told the BVD for an initial story on the cancellation that was posted online.

And as news of the parade cancellation spread, concerned locals began contacting county officials. The Lincoln Rodeo Club had also been in contact with Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton and Lewis and Clark County Commission Chair Susan Good Geise about their concerns involving the social distancing requirements for the rodeo.

"Yes, we had several robust conversations," Lewis and Clark County Commission Chair Geise said of the ensuing discussion at the county. "At the end of the day, the organizers there in Lincoln have made provisions for distancing, not only for the parade, but also for the rodeo."

"The department of public health, after consultation with several elected officials, decided not to implement their changes," Dutton told the BVD. "They will stick with the governor's request and evaluate how the cases go."

The issue for both events seemed to be requirements related to group size and the six-foot social distancing requirements. According to the guidelines, "groups may be no larger than 50 people in circumstances that do not readily allow for appropriate physical distancing." It calls for the cancellation of events involving groups larger than 50, unless distancing can be maintained.

Dutton reached out to LVCC Board member Erin Dey and spoke to the board during a special board meeting Thursday evening. He explained that he believes the parade and rodeo can go forward safely, and urged individuals who are sick to stay home.

Likewise, Geise urged people to be cautious.

"People who want to participate, may participate," she said, but added that 'just because you can, doesn't necessarily mean you should."

"People need to be very careful. If they decide to go to all these wonderful events in Lincoln...people really need to understand COVID-19 is real. It is not a hoax and things are going to look somewhat different," she said. "I take my hat off to the organizers of the Lincoln events to be realistic and saying, 'yep, COVID's real so we're going to make some accommodations to reflect this new reality.'"

For Dutton, it boils down to adults being personally responsible for their own decisions.

"They don't have to come to events. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don't, I'm not going to force you. I don't believe it's our place to be telling adults they need to be responsible."

Dutton normally takes part in the parade every year and plans to ride in it this year. "I'm looking forward to it, I really am" he said. "I appreciate the health department working with us as we go forward."

Geise said she thinks the original plans for the events were perhaps too incomplete and that there was "maybe a little bit of miscommunication initially, probably on both sides."

"The reason these events are going to be permitted is because organizers in Lincoln were able to come up with a workable plan," Geise said. "I am grateful. I come from a small town, I get how important these economies are. You've got one shot to make money. But you want to do it in a way that's responsible."

"We're just doing our thing and trying to make it happened. That's all we can do," Lincoln Rodeo Club President Christ Lewenight said of their planning efforts. "We're trying to do our best to make it right."

In recent weeks, Helena has hosted several large events including protests, rallies and a large car show. Like those, the fact that Lincoln's events are outdoors helped. Geise said the science is showing that outdoor events, with people wearing masks, hasn't led to huge increases in COVID-19.

"That's why things that are happening outside are more palatable to public health people, she said.

However, not everyone agrees with the decision to move forward with the events, particularly given the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in Montana and around the country.

Jesse Sallin, who has chaired the parade committee since last year, resigned her position on Saturday.

"Because of COVID-19 and my concern for the Lincoln residents, and because the County Health Board would not approve the Chamber's plan for the parade, I do not feel comfortable being chairman of the Fourth of July parade," she said.

Sallin has offered to continue with prep work, including putting together bags of candy for children on the floats.

Meanwhile, LCPH issued a warning June 26 regarding possible "Super Spreader" events, in which they recommend avoiding large gatherings, wearing a face covering and physical distancing. Radford indicated LCPH had concerns the Lincoln parade could be such an event.

Geise said her experience last weekend with the Augusta Kids Rodeo and the Ranch Rodeo, which drew a couple hundred spectators, showed that a conservative crowd that may even be skeptical of the coronavirus risks were nevertheless good about maintaining social distance.

The LCPH "super spreader" warning also indicates that gatherings and inter-jurisdictional travel are now the leading causes of cases in Montana. While Geise supports Lincoln's Independence Day events and the plans that have been developed, she agrees the biggest challenge will be from visitors or tourists who come to the events without the same level of concern for the town.

"We're done with COVID before COVID is done with us, and it will have the last word." She said. "The disease doesn't care if the people have run out of patience and are tired of being cooped up."


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