Why the Time is Right for Missoula Restaurants to Rejoin Our Community

Like many restaurant owners in Missoula County, our dining room has been shuttered during the past six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After careful deliberation, we have decided to reopen our dine-in services to the public. We made our decision based on data, widely accepted guidance and our ability to implement the requirements of the Missoula County Health Department (“MCHD”). The Top Hat wanted to share why we believe it is responsible and safe to reopen our dine-in service.

In an era of social media and politicized news, it has been difficult to formulate an accurate understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a restaurant owner, I wanted the most accurate information to understand when and how to responsibly and safely reopen our dine-in operations. In our research, it became clear that John Hopkins University (“JHU”) is the leading, non-partisan institution driving federal and state COVID-19 policy. In particular, JHU has published widely adopted, non-partisan reports outlining a phased approach in reopening state economies.

The most widely accepted JHU Report outlined four conditions that should be achieved prior to reopening a State’s economy to “non-essential businesses” such as restaurants. These four conditions include: 1) the number of new cases has declined for 14 days, 2) diagnostic testing capacity is sufficient to test all people with COVID-19 symptoms, 3) the healthcare system is able to care for infected patients and 4) sufficient capacity to conduct “contact tracing” for new cases. Based on our assessment, Missoula County has met all four criteria.

First, as a result of early actions taken by Governor Bullock, Montana controlled the spread of COVID-19. Montana closed schools, “non-essential” businesses and implemented a shelter-in-place order earlier than many states, particularly rural states. As a result, Montana has the fewest cases and hospitalizations per capita in the country. In Missoula County, after reaching a peak of five cases on April 6, we have seen zero new cases over the past 10 days, and only one new case during the past 14 days.

Second, Missoula County has successfully implemented a rapid diagnostic testing program that currently has excess capacity. For example, the testing facility at the Fairgrounds has a capacity of 80 tests per day. According to the MCHD, the facility is experiencing approximately 24 requests per day, with a peak day of 32 requests, less than half the current capacity.

Third, according to the University of Washington, Montana has 1,670 beds, with only 30 beds utilized at the peak of the pandemic. Further, Montana has 85 ICU beds and only utilized 8 ICU beds at the peak. According to UW, Montana has not experienced any shortfall in healthcare capacity.

Lastly, MCHD has implemented a “contact tracing” program. According to officials, MCHD has capacity of 5 – 10 cases per day. Given our peak of five new cases, we currently have sufficient (and growing) capacity to contact trace new cases as they arise.

Our state and local leaders took early and effective action, which has proven successful. These leaders put Montana businesses in the best position of any in the country. It is the same leaders who now say, if health department requirements are followed, it is responsible and safe to reopen “Phase One” businesses. For the above reasons, the Top Hat feels it is appropriate, responsible and safe to reopen, and server our customers, in our dine-in restaurant operations. The Top Hat very much looks forward to reconnecting with our community in this “new normal.”

– Nick and Robin Checota, Owners of the Top Hat Restaurant.


Header Photo by Chris MacAdams