HELENA -- On Sept. 4, the day it was announced a number of spectators in Lewis and Clark County could dot the stands and sidelines of fall high school sporting events, the county had 207 COVID-19 cases, according to state data. As of Dec. 16, that state data shows 910 cases in the county.
As a result of the higher case count, Lewis and Clark Public Health is not reviewing COVID-19 mitigation plans for events of up to 250 people, a required step for approving the return of spectators this winter. Lewis and Clark Public Health Officer Drenda Niemann said the reason they are not reviewing plans is that the county’s decision-making criteria, in regards to limiting the spread of the virus, are not being met.
“We continually assess. We look at this every week, we look at our numbers every week. We look at our hospital capacity every week and we make adjustments to the situation in our county based on that data," Niemann told MTN Sports via Zoom. "We will continue to assess, and we will continue to look forward to the day that we can then open those groups, gatherings and events back up again.”
Per Governor Steve Bullock's and the county's orders, gatherings that do not require COVID-19 mitigation plans must be limited to 25 people. Due to plans not being able to be submitted by the Helena activities office, spectators at winter sporting events will be limited to 25 until the situation in the county improves.
“Youth activities can proceed as they are planned for the winter sports with all of the public health precautions and the planning efforts that the schools have done," said Niemann. "The spectators then would be limited to 25.”
MTN reached out to Helena activities director Tim McMahon via email regarding the state of spectator limitations, and McMahon later put out a press release stating:
"As we approach the winter sports season, our school district has continued to engage in regular communication with the health professionals of Lewis & Clark Public Health. At this time, plans for gatherings larger than 25 people are not being approved within our County. We respect and support that decision especially in consideration of the continued increase in local COVID-19 cases. In an effort to provide families with the opportunity to watch their student-athlete participate, our Activities Office will be working with schools and teams to develop a system to provide a limited spectator passes for home games (for the home team only). Please know that we will not distribute more than 25 passes per game. This system will remain in effect until gathering sizes can be increased. We understand that this will limit the number of spectators per student athlete. While our Activities Office will work to ensure equity in the number of spectators for each participant, families will need to work together to ensure equity across the family. As in the past, games will be broadcast via the NFHS Network. We thank you in advance for your patience and understanding."
MTN Sports also reached out to East Helena High School's vice principal and athletics director, Shaun Murgel, but MTN has not yet received a response regarding the spectator limitations.