Missoula County to host virtual summit on restoring passenger rail to southern Montana

Missoula County will host a virtual Montana Passenger Rail Summit on Thursday, Sept. 17, to educate and advocate for the restoration of passenger rail service to southern Montana.

The summit is open to elected officials, government staff, business and tourism professionals, and anyone interested in restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana and increasing rail connectivity across the region.

Organizers are still finalizing the agenda, but confirmed speakers include:

  • Elaine Clegg, city council president, Boise, Idaho
  • Robert Eaton, director, State Supported Service and Government Affairs, Amtrak
  • Jordan Hess, councilman, City of Missoula
  • Jim Mathews, president and CEO, Rail Passengers Association
  • Roger Millar, secretary of transportation, Washington State Department of Transportation
  • Andrea Olsen, representative, Montana House
  • Beth Osborne, director, Transportation for America
  • John-Robert Smith, chairman, Transportation for America
  • John Spain, vice chairman, Southern Rail Commission
  • Dave Strohmaier, commissioner, Missoula County

“Restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana would be transformative for the state — economically, socially and environmentally,” Strohmaier said. “As we recover from the effects of COVID-19, it’s more critical than ever to make smart transportation investments that further community resiliency. Passenger rail is key to realizing that vision, and there is no reason why Montana shouldn’t be a leader in making this a reality.”

Strohmaier, with the support of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and others, has spearheaded the current renewed effort to restore passenger rail service to the southern part of the state, similar to the North Coast Hiawatha Amtrak route that served Montana until 1979. In addition to providing long-distance transportation within the state, passenger rail restoration would provide for greater connectivity regionally, with possible connections to Seattle, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City.

State statute allows for counties to create a regional rail authority as a framework for administering and funding passenger rail service. Earlier this month, Missoula County commissioners finalized a resolution to create the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and commissioners from Dawson, Park and Sanders counties have expressed their intent to join.

“Bringing passenger rail back to southern Montana would be a game changer for our state, but it is no small task,” Hess said. “We need broad support and coordination from cities and towns across Montana. The summit will be an opportunity to add to the growing chorus of voices supporting passenger rail.”

Pre-registration for the virtual summit is now available at https://montanapassengerrailsummit.org/. Participants who pre-register will receive an email update when summit details are confirmed and full registration is available. The summit was originally scheduled to take place in-person in April but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Missoula County elected officials: We must work together to ensure justice for all

Protest
Protesters gather at the Missoula County Courthouse in May.

On May 25, 2020, our nation witnessed the horror of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee pressed into his neck. Mothers everywhere, from Minneapolis to Maine to Missoula, winced hearing a dying man call to his own.

This act is but a snapshot of hundreds of years of oppression. Much of the United States was built on stolen land with stolen labor, and these centuries old crimes still echo today, across generations. As your Missoula County elected officials, we share a vision of a just future, yet do not pretend to know the exact path forward.  Though some of us have faced discrimination, we have all benefited from structural racism. Much of our knowledge of racial injustice comes from shared stories rather than personal experiences.  Nonetheless, we are committed to amplifying and including the voices of those who do understand.

We embrace the right to peacefully protest, encourage our citizens to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and speak their minds, without violence. Across the country people from every walk of life are saying — loud and clear — ENOUGH.  We hear you and agree with you.

We are willing to listen and to take further action.  Some of the steps we’ve made to examine and address inequality in our local criminal justice system include rolling out our comprehensive jail diversion plan, launching our prosecution-led diversion program and reforming our pre-trial system.  We’ve invited the National Native Children’s Trauma Center to inform criminal justice employees of the devastating impacts of historical trauma of Native people and teach us the practice of cultural humility. As a county government, we’re proud of our relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. We are committed to understanding why American Indians are disproportionately represented in detention and what additional steps we can take to address historical injustices.

We have people working exclusively on equity issues in our public health department and at the Partnership Health Center clinic. And we understand all our work must be considered through an equity lens. Even so, inequality persists and we must address it now.

There is a lot of work to be done and, as your elected officials, we shoulder the burden of change. This work must be perpetual, so we are making a sustained commitment. We expect that you will hold us to account and appreciate your involvement. Please join us in this effort.

Over the course of the past two weeks, in the midst of violence and devastation, we also saw unlikely alliances and witnessed acts of unprecedented solidarity and kindness: the organizer of a conservative rally invited a Black Lives Matter activist to the stage; law enforcement professionals denounced the actions of racist officers; a sheriff and his deputies responding to a call for security, instead joined the march with protesters; a stalwart row of blue uniforms in Texas took a knee in honor of those who’ve been slain and those who marched.

Robert Kennedy said each time a person “stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Let’s keep working together — starting with ripple —  so that the tragic events of last month mark the end of the long night of injustice for people of color in our community and signal a new day, one that honors the legacy of George Floyd, and all who came before him, by implementing — not just promising — justice for all.

Signed,

Alex Beal, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County Commissioner
David Wall, Missoula County Auditor
Erin Lipkind, Missoula County Superintendent of Schools
Josh Slotnick, Missoula County Commissioner
Juanita Vero, Missoula County Commissioner
Kirsten Pabst, Missoula County Attorney
Landee Holloway, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Shirley Faust, Missoula County Clerk of Court
TJ McDermott, Missoula County Sheriff
Tyler Gernant, Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer

*A version of this post was also submitted to several area news organizations

Missoula health officer updates order to allow more businesses to open

Health Department

Missoula Health Officer Ellen Leahy today issued an update to her April 24 order as part of the gradual reopening plan for Missoula County. The main updates to the order include:

  • Businesses and individuals providing grooming, beauty, body art, piercing, massage, spa and similar services to open Monday, May 11. These entities can open as long as they create a service plan that supports employee health screening,
    social distancing, face-covering use, and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing.
  • The limit on events and gatherings such as fairs, concerts, races and sporting events, and private parties outside the home was raised to 50 people. Events with 50 or fewer must maintain six-foot social distancing. This does not replace the governor’s requirement to limit groups to 10 people when distancing cannot be maintained.
  • Farmers markets may open for the sale of unprocessed agricultural products starting Saturday, May 23. The market must have a plan to support social distancing, including the flow of customers and limiting the number of people in the market at one time. Vendors must space tables six feet apart. Vendors, employees, and volunteers are required to screen for symptoms and have provisions for personal hygiene and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing.
  • Schools may hold graduation, providing that they have a plan to keep families separated by six feet and can limit the total number of people to 250 based on guidance for large gatherings. The schools must provide a plan to support social distancing, personal hygiene and sanitation.

The local orders will remain in place until the governor moves to Phase Two, or the health officer rescinds or modifies them.

Gov. Bullock’s announcement on May 7 regarding the opening of gyms, fitness studios, some pools, movie theaters, and non-tactile museums are not affected by the local order.

These facilities may open Friday, May 15, providing they can follow the requirements outlined by the governor.

“We are at a different place than we were on April 24 when the original orders were issued,” said Cindy Farr, incident commander with the Missoula City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 response. “We had nine active cases. We were still getting new cases of COVID, and we were following two dozen close contacts. We are now at zero active cases and haven’t had a new case in over two weeks.”

Farr adds that while the outbreak appears to be winding down that COVID-19 is still a risk. The health department encourages community members to practice personal and community protective measures. Monitoring for symptoms, staying home when sick, washing hands, social distancing, and staying home as much as possible are still prevention measures that matter.

Additionally, the Health Board’s recommendation for wearing cloth face coverings in public spaces can decrease community spread.

“Keeping cases down at this point comes down to behavior and contact tracing. We can do the contact tracing and provide guidance to our community, but we still need the community’s help,” said Farr.

“Behavior matters. Social distancing and helping businesses and organizations follow the provisions is not only helpful for them but helpful for the community.”

For detailed descriptions of what these businesses will need to do to safely reopen, check out the health department’s guide online at missoula.co/reopeningmissoulacounty. If you have questions about how the local orders affect your business or organization, please call 406-258-4755.

Health officer issues order for more gradual reopening in Missoula County

Health Department

Missoula Health Officer Ellen Leahy issued an order Friday providing additional guidance and restrictions to accompany the statewide Reopening the Big Sky plan Gov. Steve Bullock outlined earlier this week.

The order enhances sections of the governor’s plan and provides for a more gradual reopening process. It intends to protect public health and Missoula’s healthcare hub, our communities, and our essential businesses, services and workers. It will also allow local public health to develop guidance for businesses during this transition.

The key components of the order include:

  • Events are limited to 25 people. During Phase One, which begins Monday, April 27, events and gatherings such as, but not limited to, fairs, festivals, markets (including farmers’ markets), concerts, sporting events, races and private parties outside the home must be limited to 25 people during Phase One. A 6-foot physical distance between participants must be maintained. If this distancing cannot be maintained, then these gathers are limited to 10 people, per the governor’s directive.
  • Salons, spas, body art, grooming and similar services must remain closed. Hair and nail salons, barbershops, spas, tattoo parlors, massage parlors and other businesses and individuals providing grooming, beauty, body art, piercing, massage and similar services will remain closed until Phase Two. Massage therapy affiliated with licensed physical therapy and chiropractor services is exempt from this requirement.
  • Retail businesses must take additional measures to reopen. Retail business, formerly deemed “non-essential” and required to be closed during the stay-at-home directive, may reopen to only curbside pick-up and delivery on Monday, April 27. These businesses may resume in-store services on Friday, May 1, if all the requirements below are met. The following requirements also apply to essential retail businesses that continued operations under the statewide stay-at-home directive:
    • At any given time, the maximum number of customers must be 50% of usual business capacity
    • Measures to protect customers and staff waiting in line at checkout counters, such as visible markers or signs denoting six-foot separation or temporary barriers, are in place
    • Staff have received training on practicing good hygiene, maintaining physical distancing, recognizing symptoms of COVID-19, and not reporting to work or remaining at work if experiencing symptoms;
    • Businesses must develop and implement an individualized plan addressing the requirements in the governor’s re-opening directive and this order. Businesses must keep the completed plan on-site and make it available to the Missoula City-County Health Department upon request.
  • Eating and drinking establishments must adhere to requirements to reopen. Restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos may reopen on Monday, May 4, as long as all the guidelines outlined in the governor’s directive can be met. The main difference here between the state plan and the Missoula County approach is that the guidelines outlined in the governor’s plan will be requirements in Missoula County. If establishments cannot meet these requirements, they must remain closed during Phase One. In addition, these establishments also must provide for at least 6 feet of separation between diners and groups of diners, including those sitting in booths.

These measures will remain in effect until the governor moves the state to Phase Two re-opening (the date for which has not been determined) or until this order is revoked or revised based on review of epidemiological data, testing availability and public health and medical capacity to control the spread of the virus and treat COVID-19.

To read the full order and access additional guidance, head to missoula.co/cvirus. If you have questions about how the local orders affect your business or organization, you can call 406-258-4755.

“We know that there are cases in our county that have not been identified and are concerned that we could see a spike in cases if we loosen restrictions too quickly and without a plan,” said Cindy Farr, incident commander with the Missoula City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 response. “We need to take a measured approach to reopening in Missoula for the sake of the public’s health.”

Farr also added that the measures, while delaying some openings, will help minimize the chances of future closures or workforce impacts if cases increase.

“What we don’t want is for businesses to invest in getting back on track, only to be affected again,” Farr said. “Taking the time, providing guidance and moving methodically is important.”

The health department recognizes that loosening any restriction is likely to contribute to case numbers but knows restrictions long-term are not practical. Working with businesses and the community to create a “new normal” in the era of the pandemic is essential.

Since Wednesday, the health department received more than 200 comments from community members, business owners and essential workers. About 90% of the comments asked for additional local measures, particularly to slow the reopening of the businesses that are covered in the order.

Under the governor’s directive, public schools in Montana will have the option to reopen starting Thursday, May 7. The decision to reopen will be up to individual school districts, including Missoula County Public Schools and other districts in the county. The Board of Trustees for MCPS, the largest district in the county, plans to make that decision on Friday, May 1.

Along with these measures, the department encourages community members to practice personal and community protective measures. Monitoring for symptoms, staying home when sick, washing hands, social distancing, and staying home as much as possible are still prevention measures that matter. Additionally, the Health Board’s recommendation for wearing cloth face coverings in public spaces where social distancing is hard may decrease community spread.

“Keeping cases down at this point comes down to behavior and contact tracing,” Farr said. “We can do the contact tracing and provide guidance to our community, but we still need the community’s help. It is going to take all of us supporting each other to keep COVID-19 down. We’ve weathered this storm as well as we have because of community thinking, and that’s what’s going to continue to matter.”

COVID-19 and mental health: Missoula County resources

Mental health

These are difficult times, and it is natural and normal to be experiencing strong feelings. There are a lot of changes and directives coming at us right now, but one thing we want to make sure you do is be gentle with yourself and take some time for your mental health.

The Missoula City-County Health Department has compiled the following resources for anyone experiencing changes in their mental health. There are a lot of great online resources available as well as crisis and warm lines ready for your call. Please also take advantage of telehealth options with your therapists and counselors.

▪National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

▪Crisis Text Line: Text “MT” to 741-741
▪Missoula City-County Health Suicide Prevention office: 406-258-3881
▪Western Montana Mental Health Center: 406-532-8949
▪Montana Warmline (877-688-3377) is available 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. for people with a mental illness who want to talk to a peer who is in recovery for their own mental illness: http://montanawarmline.org
▪Shatter Proof has resources to help those dealing with substance abuse disorder during this time of COVID: https://www.shatterproof.org
▪Online meditation and calming apps such https://insighttimer.com/ and https://www.calm.com/ can be helpful.
▪Partners in Health has advice for maintaining mental health while social distancing: https://www.pih.org/article/10-mental-health-tips-coronavirus-social-distancing

Take care of yourself, and take care of each other. We’ll get through this!