Bullock Announces Phased Reopening of Economy, Eased Restrictions

Montana plans to begin phased reopening following stay-at-home directive expiration on April 24

By Maggie Dresser
A stretch of Highway 93 between Whitefish and Kalispell as seen around 6 p.m. Saturday, March 28, 2020. Traffic on the Flathead Valley’s main routes is light since the arrival of COVID-19 in Northwestern Montana. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Gov. Steve Bullock announced on Friday that the state plans to begin a phased reopening of the Montana economy following the April 24 expiration of the stay-at-home order and other directives.

But in order to safely reopen, the governor stressed that there must be a sustained reduction in new cases for at least 14 days and hospitals must be able to safely treat both COVID-19 patients and individuals with other conditions. Other factors include testing capacity for all individuals with symptoms and making sure businesses can reopen in a safe manner.

Further details about the reopening will be released next week, but Bullock emphasized that it will be a “gradual process, because once we begin to reopen, we want to be able to stay open.”

“We’ll do it responsibly and in phases in order to ensure we keep the curve flattened, so we can mitigate the risk knowing that the risk is still there,” the governor said. “We’ll do it in a way that will protect Montanans’ lives and the recovery of our economy.”

“Our new normal is going to look a little bit different,” Bullock added. “This virus isn’t going away, and we’re going to have to continue to adapt with how we live with it for the next while.”

On Wednesday, the Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force was established to “help sustain Montanans through the pandemic and put the state on a path to economic recovery,” Bullock said. The task force will examine the economy’s sectors to consider the needs of each region of the state. Montana will receive $1.25 billion in federal funds to respond to the crisis.

“We’re still waiting to actually receive guidance on how it can be spent … but when we do we will be able to hit the ground running to best support business and Montanans,” Bullock said.

The Associated Press reported that Montana has been seeing a downward trend in COVID-19 cases since its high of 35 new cases reported on March 26. By this weekend, Bullock said Montana should have met the requirement of two weeks of declining cases.

Because Montanans took the stay-at-home and social distancing directives seriously, Bullock said, the state is in a position to begin reopening its economy “in a time when a whole lot of states still won’t be able to.”

“Even as we reopen facets or remove some of these directives, there will be expectations of things like social distancing and masks,” Bullock said.

Schools wouldn’t be open under the first phase of easing restrictions, according to the AP, but Bullock said local school districts could make their own decisions.

Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joe Unterreiner sent the governor a letter earlier in the day encouraging Montana’s phased reopening, noting that “Montana is significantly below initial estimates for coronavirus impacts and among the most well-positioned states in the country on a path forward.”

“I know you have been working around the clock to achieve these exceptional results,” Unterreiner wrote. “Montana is among a handful of states best positioned to begin transitioning to a more open economy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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