MT Arena Can Host HS Graduation, But Gun Show A No-No

A Billings, Montana gun show scheduled to take place in late May has been nixed by officials in Yellowstone County, but organizers are crying foul after those same health officials gave the green light for a high school graduation to take place in the same event space days earlier.

The Billings Gazette reports that health officials say there are big differences between the two events scheduled at First Interstate Arena at Metra Park. The gun show is a “large, uncontrolled environment,” according to Barbara Schneeman, a spokeswoman for the county’s public health agency. Schneeman says that there’s no way for organizers to maintain social distancing measures, but gun show organizers and arena management said were prepared for any contingency.

However, MetraPark Marketing Director Ray Massie said the venue had plans in place to control the flow of attendees and maintain social distancing at the gun show, which was set for May 29-31.

“We probably are more controlled than what you would have in a typical retail location,” he said.

The dispute illustrates the nuance in reopening guidelines; there’s not a yes-or-no crowd size threshold for large events like a graduation or gun show. Rather, meeting health rules depends on the nature of events and regulations in place.

That graduations could be held while the gun show was shut out was frustrating to gun show organizer Brian Kjensmo, who highlighted the economic costs of COVID-19 shutdowns. It would have been the gun show’s 21st year.

“Everybody’s feeling the effects of it,” said Kjensmo.

Massey said organizers reduced the number of usual booths from about 80 to about 50, moved from the Montana Pavilion building to the larger arena, created a floor plan for controlling the flow of people, and there were plans to limit crowd size to 500 total people.

Not good enough, according to the health department spokeswoman.

“You have no way of really controlling the physical distance between people,” she said.

In comparison, the planned graduations have assigned seating, separate entrances depending on tickets, staff on hand to help enforce distancing, and a choreographed plan that lasts only a few hours, she said.

I get where the health department is coming from, but at the same time, Montana has reported 459 coronavirus cases statewide, and the state health department says that 423 of those individuals have recovered, while another 16 people have died from the virus in the state. That means at the moment there are only 20 confirmed active coronavirus cases in all of Montana. Billings isn’t exactly in the middle of a huge outbreak, in other words.

Additionally, organizers and arena management disagree with the health department in Yellowstone County comparing the gun show to a trade show, and say a better comparison would be to a shopping mall. Under the state’s re-open plan, most retail establishments in malls are allowed to re-open in Phase One of the state’s re-open plan, though customers will be limited to ten per store.

Kjensmo was critical of what he felt was a buck-passing of sorts between local, state, and the federal government on reopening plans. He’d been calling vendors to notify them of the shutdown.

“To say they’re unhappy is an understatement,” he said.

Schneeman said county health officials have been in touch with the Metra about the event; Massie said that he was hoping for a meeting with health officials “in the next couple days” about potential modifications for Metra events.

He acknowledged that health officials face “difficult choices.” Schneeman said that it’s fair to recognize that there’s likely to be frustration with reopening plans.

There’s likely to be even more frustration when the reopening plans don’t make a lot of sense, and honestly, the plans to block the gun show from taking place don’t make much sense at all. Here’s hoping that arena officials and gun show organizers can come to some kind of agreement with the county health board. If not, perhaps a legal challenge is in order.