Schools across Montana will be closed for two weeks in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, the virus that has spread around the globe and dramatically altered American life in just a matter of days.
Gov. Steve Bullock announced Sunday that he was ordering all K-12 schools in the state to close for two weeks until March 27. The governor’s office was also recommending that all gatherings with more than 50 people be canceled.
“As governor, it is my top priority to protect the health and safety of Montanans, particularly our most vulnerable, at a time when we face the potential for extraordinary health risks from coronavirus in our state,” Bullock said. “Social distancing is one of the most important primary protective measures to flatten the curve of this virus. I cannot underscore the seriousness of following these measures to help our neighbors, friends, and families.”
The news came just 48 hours after Bullock announced the first cases of coronavirus in the state. As of Sunday, six people in the state have been diagnosed with the infection. Bullock declared a state of emergency on March 12 before anyone had been diagnosed with the virus in an effort to open access to emergency funding.
In a press release, Bullock said that schools would continue to receive funding during the shutdown and that he was asking them to provide free meals to students who need them. He was also asking employers to be generous with their employee sick and paid time leave policies during the pandemic.
“I recognize that our schools often serve as a lifeline for families and that this decision is going to have disruption on Montanans over the coming weeks. I’m committed to working with schools, communities and public health to minimize the impact. I encourage businesses to do everything they can to support families as well,” Bullock said.
Officials were also “strongly recommending” that the public limit all gatherings, especially those more than 50 people, in every community across the state. Bullock is also recommending that individuals over the age of 60 or who are immunocompromised or with chronic health conditions do not participate in gatherings of more than 20 people. He also recommends that parents should avoid, if possible, placing children for childcare with grandparents or individuals over the age of 60 or immunocompromised persons.
Visitation in Montana’s nursing homes is suspended except for certain compassionate care situations. People who meet the exception for visitation will undergo a screening to determine whether they have traveled in the last two weeks, are residing where community spread is occurring, or if they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
As of March 15, there were no coronavirus cases in Flathead County, although local officials are preparing for the virus’ arrival. On Friday, Flathead County Commission designated Flathead City-County Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson as the “incident commander” to lead the local response to the coronavirus pandemic and could declare a local state of emergency as early as this week as a tool to access funding.