Despite enhanced safety efforts, 116 positive COVID-19 cases identified since July 8
By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Editor-in-Chief
BIG SKY – More than 100 workers at the largest construction project in Montana have tested positive for COVID-19 over the month of July. The $400 million ultra-luxury Montage Big Sky hotel site is now also ground zero for one of the largest outbreaks in the state.
Since July 8, when Suffolk Construction, the contractor building Montage began testing workers regularly at the project site located in Spanish Peaks Mountain Resort near Big Sky, at least 116 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Most of the positive cases have been asymptomatic, according to officials with Suffolk and Gallatin County’s health department, and positive case numbers are currently dropping.
“It’s a concerning number of cases,” said Matt Kelley, Gallatin County’s health officer. “They’re positivity rate has gone from a little over 20 percent to 5 or 6 percent, which is still concerning but it’s more in line with what we’re seeing countywide. They’re going to keep testing and the strategy is to test the heck out of the place until we stop finding positives.”
Joel Nickel, Suffolk’s executive project manager, attributes the increased positive test numbers to the due diligence of the company, which has taken numerous precautionary measures since two positive cases were identified by Gallatin County Health Department officials on March 26.
“We’re doing the right thing and making sure that people are leaving [the job site],” Nickel said of those workers who have tested positive for COVID-19. “We are a part of the community and we want to do what’s right.”
EBS reported on April 13 that six Montage workers had tested positive for the coronavirus, and Suffolk subsequently implemented a number of protocols for all of its nearly 400 employees. The company began taking daily temperatures of its workers; it installed hand-washing and sanitation stations; it purchased and mandated face coverings; it “fogged” commonly used work areas throughout the more than 500,000 square-foot hotel with germ-killing products.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do and they’ve done a lot of things we didn’t think to ask them to do,” Kelley said. “From my perspective, they’ve been responsive. They’ve been forthcoming with all the information we want.”
But these precautions couldn’t stave off the pandemic.
As COVID-19 cases began climbing in June across the country and in Montana, the Montage was not spared. Suffolk increased mandatory cleaning efforts to twice per day and continued utilizing infrared temperature scanners at site entries and electronic devices to ensure social distancing.
“It looks like a pager on hard hats and beeps at you if you’re within six feet of someone else,” Nickel said in a July 30 interview. A number on the beeper correlates to a person’s name in order to track individual workers, he added. Suffolk also privatized testing.
Early this month, Suffolk hired an outside testing company, Scottsdale, Arizona-based Matrix Medical Network, to perform daily tests on all workers at the job site. Since July 8, Matrix has conducted 885 tests at the Montage job site.
“Suffolk has voluntarily obtained and paid for tests for all of its employees and all subcontract workers on this project site,” said Eric Christensen, executive vice president of hospitality at Lone Mountain Land Company, the developer of Montage, on behalf of Spanish Peaks. “This testing regime is helping keep not only this worksite safe, but the community at large by identifying individuals who have no symptoms and pass regular temperature checks but are still carrying the virus.”
Nickel said he wants other businesses to adopt their own testing regimen in order to control the spread of COVID-19.
“We would encourage other companies to do this testing like we’re doing,” he said. “It’s been an eye-opening experience for us. We want more people to do it because that’s the only way we’re going to find out and stop this thing.”
Even as Big Sky community members waited as long as four weeks for results from a July 1 surveillance test at the Big Sky Medical Center, Matrix reports results to Suffolk within two to three days, Nickel said.
A number of reasons contribute to the disparity in result times, according to Kelley. Increased numbers of positive cases in Montana around the time BSMC tested nearly 700 people in Big Sky on July 1 clogged the state’s testing system. In order to speed up testing, the state lab shipped some of the Big Sky tests to international diagnostic lab Quest Diagnostics, which had promised results in three to five days, EBS reported on July 20. The state has since discontinued its partnership with Quest.
Suffolk will continue testing but drop down to weekly testing sessions of up to 80 people, implementing a strategy known as “smart testing” for the foreseeable future, Nickel said. This approach requires “…all new individuals to the job site, and a random sample of existing individuals, to get COVID tested on a random interval,” Nickel wrote in an email to EBS.
The company said it currently has no plans to shut down the job site.
“I don’t think we would,” Nickel said in a July 30 interview. “Our goal is to keep people safe and keep people working.”
Kelley said any consideration of a shut down would be based on how testing progresses, but that the decision is a double-edged sword.
“I want to see a continued drop in the number of positives,” Kelley said. “Everything is on the table. I told those guys today that it’s crossed my mind: is it worth shutting the place down for two weeks? But there’s some problems with that, too, because you’re scattering everybody and you’re not testing them…
“To me there’s give and take like anything in this pandemic but I think it’s reasonable to continue aggressive testing, aggressive isolation and see what we can do to get the disease off the site,” Kelley added.
While Suffolk works to stifle COVID-19 transmission at the Montage site, Nickel says it’s difficult to monitor worker interaction after hours with rising tourist numbers in Big Sky.
“How can I control anybody from going to [bars and restaurants] every night,” he said. “You could randomly be going to the gas station and pump gas and be infected.”
As Big Sky stumbles through a summer of unknowns and sees higher tourism numbers than expected, Kelley says folks need to be vigilant in order to stay safe and healthy even as that safety remains threatened in Big Sky and across Montana.
“It is really hard to be a tourism-based economy during a pandemic. It’s a no-win situation,” Kelley said. “We’re doing our best to reduce transmission while we’ve essentially invited a bunch of people to come visit. And that’s hard. I’ve likened it to jogging in roller skates. You’re really trying to do two things at once and those two things often don’t go together.”