Signs of transmission gone, patients not in area, officials say
By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Editor-in-Chief
BIG SKY – County health officials on April 10 completed an investigation into a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases that yielded six infected individuals stemming from a construction project site at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club.
Two workers with a subcontractor at the ultra-luxury Montage Big Sky hotel site in Spanish Peaks tested positive on March 24 and the Gallatin City-County Health Department in response began an investigation that identified six total cases, according to the department’s Health Officer Matt Kelley.
Four of the six workers were confirmed with the COVID-19 coronavirus in their respective hometowns after they were removed the same day from the job site, Kelley said in an April 10 phone interview after requesting the call with EBS.
“They went home all across Montana and tested positive in different places,” said Kelley, adding that both the subcontractor and Suffolk Construction, the Boston, Massachusetts-based company running the Montage project, made appropriate decisions after learning of the cases. “We’ve been talking to [Suffolk] for a week and the last positive case that we know of right now tested positive over two weeks ago, which is really good news.”
The last confirmed COVID-19 case was on March 26, said Joel Nickel, Suffolk’s executive project manager for the $416 million Montage project.
That same evening, March 26, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statewide stay-at-home order and said that construction workers are considered “essential employees.” The roughly 20-person crew has been removed from the project, Nickel said, and there are currently no positive cases on the job site.
“Our construction site continues to operate in accordance with Governor Bullock’s directive and with the strictest of safety protocols outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” Suffolk management wrote in a statement sent to EBS on April 13.
In an April 10 email from Suffolk management to Spanish Peaks stakeholders and obtained by EBS, Nickel stressed that he and his team are taking necessary precautions to keep the community safe.
“These [workers] I can assure you will not be allowed to comeback to the job site without a doctors note allowing them to return to work,” Nickels wrote.
“The Gallatin County Health Department did share with us that for more than 2 weeks they have not seen a single positive case linked to the Spanish Peaks job,” Nickels’ email continued. “Over this time, we have not had any new positive cases reported by our workers, while receiving only negative results from those that have been tested.”
Kelley said that Suffolk workers have been tested for COVID-19 since the first positive case was identified, but the company has not seen signs that the virus is still present at the site.
“They tell me that they know of at least 10 people who have been tested up there and have come back negative, so that’s a good sign,” Kelley said. “By looking at the onset date of their symptoms of the cases we know about and their diagnosis date, it looks like they all kind of got sick around the same period of time in March and we’re not seeing any evidence right now of disease transmission.”
The roughly 300-worker job site was reduced to near 100 at one point, but has now ramped back up to approximately 300 employees.
Suffolk Construction is taking a number of measures to ensure that its workers are operating in a safe environment, Kelley said. Once the first positive case was identified, Suffolk shut down its bus operations that were shuttling workers from Bozeman to Big Sky.
“We were taking proactive measures even before that,” Nickel said. “We were practicing social distancing measures on busses but then when the first case happened we shut it down.”
Suffolk is now allowing workers to drive themselves to the job site and is encouraging them to make the commute alone. They are also compensating for gas mileage, according to Nickel.
In addition, the construction company converted a break room in the Montage to a makeshift healthcare clinic where a third-party medical professional is taking temperatures of all employees daily. Hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations have been installed throughout the building and the company is “fogging” the Montage with a germ-killing product in high-traffic areas like stairwells, corridors, the break room and office every morning before the workers arrive on site.
“We were the first construction company to implement third-party medical temperature testing,” Nickel said. “We then passed that information along to numerous general contractors throughout the state.”
To limit transmission, Suffolk management is encouraging six-foot social distancing on the site and has purchased 400 buffs, or cloth face coverings, to hand out to tradespeople.
“Suffolk Construction has been really good to work with,” Kelley said. “They have a low tolerance for any sort of symptoms on site.”
Kelley called this situation an “extenuating circumstance,” and one that the health department identified as important to share with the Big Sky community.
“When you’re starting to see a significant number of cases that could cause community concern, we want to be proactive in communicating that,” said Kelley, adding that communicating each of the 134 confirmed cases in the county would be counterproductive to their efforts.
“We would be running ourselves into the ground and probably not for much good,” he said. “In this case, where we have done the work and we’ve seen that there are six cases we just want to be as proactive as we can and communicate what we can responsibly.”
As of the publication of this story, Gallatin County has 138 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one person is currently hospitalized. Statewide, Montana is reporting 387 confirmed cases.