Coronavirus bears down on a small Montana town

Whitefish city council member Steve Qunell urged restrictions to curb spread of the coronavirus.
Whitefish City Council member Steve Qunell urged restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Richard Read / Los Angeles Times)

When Steve Qunell won a seat on the City Council last year in this town of 8,000, he figured he’d be dealing with potholes and affordable housing.

Instead, he finds himself at the center of a raging debate over how to fight the coronavirus, which is surging in Montana like never before.

The state’s governor, Steve Bullock, a Democrat who is in the final stretch of a tight U.S. Senate race and has been reluctant to impose restrictions that could hurt his campaign, called on the hardest-hit counties to consider shutting bars and enforcing a statewide mask mandate.

There was little appetite for that in conservative Flathead County, where the health board has been dominated by an outspoken doctor who argues that the pandemic is a hoax.

That left the Whitefish City Council.

“We are the last line of defense,” Qunell, a 49-year-old high school social studies teacher, told his fellow council members during an online public meeting this week. “Are we going to lead? Or are we just going to follow the nonbelievers in the county?”

Places like Whitefish once could afford to view the pandemic as a distant big-city problem. Through mid-September, sparsely populated Montana had a death toll of 140.

But that figure has doubled over the last five weeks as a new wave of infections sweeps the country. More than 85,000 cases were reported nationwide Friday, the most in a single day since the pandemic began.

The worst outbreaks are in the rural Midwest and Rocky Mountains. With 4,693 new cases over the last week, Montana had the country’s third-highest infection rate, trailing only the Dakotas.

The rise in Montana has overwhelmed efforts to conduct contact tracing and strained health systems across the state.

And as events in Whitefish show, efforts to stem exponential increases are pushing up against a culture that prides itself on rugged independence and freedom from government rules.

Early in the pandemic, Whitefish, a gateway to ski areas and Glacier National Park, moved more decisively than many other communities to contain the virus.

Whitefish Mountain Resort looms above Whitefish, Mont., gateway to Glacier National Park.
Whitefish Mountain Resort looms above Whitefish, Mont., gateway to Glacier National Park. (Richard Read / Los Angeles Times)

Last spring, the City Council ordered hotels and short-term rental properties to take in only essential workers — a requirement that remained in place until the end of May.

Whitefish was also one of the first cities in Montana to make people wear masks — though the governor soon issued a mandate statewide.

Still, from the beginning, there was strong local opposition to such restrictions.

Leading the resistance was Dr. Annie Bukacek, a 62-year-old internist known for her far-right views and opposition to vaccination.

Flathead County commissioners appointed her to the county health board last December after dismissing two other doctors with more public health experience — changes the commissioners said were meant to increase the diversity of

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