HELENA – Cases of the coronavirus continued to rise Friday across Montana, with the greatest concentration of illnesses emerging around the Bozeman area, home to a major university and ski resorts that draw visitors from around the world.
A two-week stay-at-home order goes into effect Saturday for the state’s 1 million residents. It’s the latest directive from Gov. Steve Bullock aimed at fighting the pandemic’s spread and comes on the heels of the state’s first announced death from the virus, a 77-year-old man from Lincoln County.
Of more than 120 COVID-19 cases reported in Montana as of Friday evening, Gallatin County had at least 42. That’s about twice as many cases as Montana’s most populous county, Yellowstone. Cases also have begun to appear in rural areas such as Hill, Toole, Roosevelt and Lincoln counties.
Gallatin is home to Montana State University, a usually busy airport and nearby ski areas such as Big Sky that attract visitors from around the world.
Those amenities that make the Bozeman area attractive also could explain the disproportionate number of cases it has had to date compared with other areas of the state, Gallatin health officer Matt Kelley said.
“We’re at a crossroads. People come here from all over the world,” Kelley said. “It’s important we consider those factors.”
He said about half the cases in the county had a connection to travel elsewhere.
Under the stay-at-home order, people will be allowed to leave home to shop for necessities such as food, seek medical care and for outdoor activities — as long as they stay 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart from one another — among other exceptions. Essential activities, services and businesses will be allowed to continue uninterrupted.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath on Friday ordered all criminal and civil jury trials suspended until after April 10 to help prevent spread of the virus within the court system. Citing Bullock’s order, McGrath said many courts were “ill-equipped to comply with social distancing.”
Before Bullock issued his directive, the Montana Hospital Association had urged him to take such a step following similar moves by an increasing number of states in recent days.
“A large percentage of our elderly populations reside in our most rural communities. While our rural hospitals have taken extraordinary measures to prepare for COVID-19 in their communities, these facilities are simply not equipped to handle a high volume of acute cases,” the group said in a Thursday letter.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
The order is likely to accelerate the economic blow already caused by the coronavirus, which was illustrated Thursday with the release of federal jobless claims. That data from the U.S. Department of Labor and the state showed the number of unemployment claims for the week that ended March 21 totaled just over 14,000, a nearly 1,700% increase over the previous week.
But Bullock said the economic harm is likely to be greater if the stay-at-home order isn’t followed.
“The question of what happens if we don’t curtail this spread and the long-term impact to the economy are even much more significant than these actions,” he said.
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