Judge rejects rushed hearing of COVID lawsuit against Missoula Health Department

COVID-19 Face Mask Sign
Posted at 4:13 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 18:13:48-04

MISSOULA — A Missoula County judge rejected a request for an expedited hearing for a group of businesses suing the Missoula County Health Board for imposing COVID health restrictions.

A week ago, Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades requested a preliminary injunction to halt all Missoula County rules intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until the lawsuit was over.

He also demanded an expedited hearing, writing a 41-page explanation of why he considered the rules to be wrong and why his clients would be harmed if something wasn’t done right away.

A day later, attorney Ray Heuwinkel responded for the county saying the businesses had already survived through a year of COVID restrictions so there was no need to either rush the process to remove the mask restriction or grant the injunction.

“… the Masking Rule has been in place in Missoula County for many months, thus belying any claim of imminent irreparable harm, and there is no reason to expedite a hearing on this matter of extreme public importance,” Heuwinkel wrote.

“(The county) intend to vigorously defend their COVID-19 Mitigation Measures because those measures do not infringe on any constitutional rights and are wholly consistent with the duties and authority delegated to them by the Montana Legislature to protect the public health and welfare…”

Heuwinkel also pointed out that the county still hasn’t been served the complaint after two months.

Missoula County district judge Jason Marks agreed and denied the request for an expedited hearing. Judge John Larson was originally assigned the case, but Marks took over at Rhoades’ request.

In mid-January, Rhoades filed a lawsuit for six businesses and one individual against the Missoula City-County Board of Health and Health Officer Ellen Leahy, claiming the COVID rules adopted in December violated their unalienable rights by requiring people to wear masks in public places and restricting business hours and gathering sizes.

Claiming COVID-19 kills no more people than a seasonal flu and that 99% of those younger than 70 survive, the groups assert that the science doesn’t support restricting individual freedom.

The lawsuit was filed a week afterGov. Greg Gianforte signed a Jan. 13 directive rescinding many measures that Gov. Steve Bullock had put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 except for the mask mandate. However, Gianforte left it up to local governments to choose which measures they’d continue to enforce.

On Feb. 12, Gianforte issued a second directive eliminating the mask mandate after the Montana Legislature passed a bill that shields businesses from being sued if someone contracts COVID in their establishment.

Rhoades’ original clients included Stand Up Montana; Bronwen Llewellyn-Littlewolf; Crosspoint Community Church Inc.; Accu-Arms LLC; Bi-Lo Foods Inc.; Kingdon Enterprises LLC; and the Lolo Community Club.

Once other members of the Lolo Community Club board learned that Kingdon Enterprises owner Warren Kingdon signed the club onto the lawsuit without checking with anyone else, they called a board meeting. At the meeting where members of the public argued on both sides, the board voted to withdraw from the lawsuit.

Following the departure of the Lolo Community Center at the end of January, the Crosspoint Community Church also withdrew from the lawsuit.

In the meantime, two other businesses have signed on: Riverside Pawn in Missoula and Montex Investments, which runs the Evaro Bar. Richard Evans of Missoula also joined.