Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday unveiled a blueprint to begin easing statewide restrictions set in place to slow the spread of coronavirus, allowing bars, restaurants and retail businesses to reopen with required protocols in the coming days and weeks while giving school districts the option to resume in-classroom teaching.
Bullock laid out his plan as the rate of new COVID-19 cases slows across the state and as pressure mounts to lift a stay-at-home order to Montana residents. As of Wednesday, state health officials have confirmed 439 positive cases of COVID-19 and 14 deaths related to the infection, including two in Flathead County.
After two weeks of flattening the curve, Bullock said Montana has the lowest percentage of positive COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation, as well as the lowest number of hospitalizations.
The Democratic governor said Montana’s aggressive measures to combat the virus early on helped slow its spread, and while he acknowledged the financial hardships that businesses and workers have already endured, Bullock said his new directive gives the state’s beleaguered economy more flexibility to regain its footing.
“Montanans can say that together we made this decline in cases possible,” Bullock said. “We have flattened the curve and we have saved lives. Over the past five weeks, Montanans all across our state have made incredible sacrifices and gone to great lengths, and these collective actions are what have made this phased reopening possible.”
The statewide stay-at-home order will expire on April 26 for individuals and on April 27 for some businesses. So-called “main street” and retail businesses can become operational on or after April 27 if they can adhere to requirements to limit capacity and maintain strict physical distancing.
Restaurants, bars, breweries, and distilleries can begin providing some in-establishment services beginning May 4, though they must operate at reduced capacities and implement social distancing practices. Places of worship can become operational on April 26 in a manner consistent with social distancing between people who are not members of the same household.
Businesses where groups gather without the ability to social distance, including movie theaters, gyms, and other places of assembly, remain closed.
Employers are directed to develop policies to keep employees and customers safe, including teleworking when possible, enforcing social-distancing protocols and other measures as provided in an appendix of reopening guidelines.
“Our new normal is going to look different. This virus isn’t gone from Montana. So as we turn to support our main street businesses and get more families back to work during this time — as we should — we must also be sure to continue looking out for those around us and protecting everyone around us,” Bullock said. “Once we begin to reopen, we want to be able to stay open. Our personal responsibility to protect those around us — particularly those most vulnerable — remains just as important as any time during this pandemic.”
On May 7, all schools will have the option to return to in-classroom teaching delivery at the discretion of local school boards. The directive does not preclude school boards from declaring local emergencies to continue to receive all appropriate state funding to continue to provide remote learning.
Montana’s travel quarantine will remain in effect, and out-of-state travelers and residents arriving from another state or country back to Montana for non-work related purposes are required to quarantine for 14 days.
The directive does not prohibit more restrictive local ordinances, and encourages local officials to work regionally and make local adjustments as local needs demand.
The plan includes several phases and details the factors that will determine when it is appropriate to move to the second phase of reopening. This decision will be driven by conditions on the ground and the latest data. Bullock and his task force will continue to monitor cases closely and carefully to analyze Montana’s work to contain the virus.
Bullock said he based the plan to reopen gradually on the latest scientific evidence and data, and in consultation with public health experts, health care providers, business leaders, and emergency management professionals.
“Local public health continues to work closely with Governor Bullock and our state partners to work towards a systematic reopening of Montana that minimizes the risk of viral spread. We appreciate the partnerships we have all across the state, which in no doubt, will continue to serve Montanans,” Hillary Hanson, Public Health Officer at the Flathead City-County Health Department, said in a prepared statement.
Bullock’s plan received positive feedback from leaders of the state’s business and medical communities.
“The Montana Chamber of Commerce supports a phased approach to re-opening our economy, while still maintaining health standards and containing the spread of COVID-19,” Todd O’Hair, President/CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said. “Montana businesses are capable of being flexible and partnering with our colleagues and employees to address the challenges that this may pose, and are eager to open our doors once again.”
“Montana and its hospitals moved swiftly and thoughtfully to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the results of this effort is demonstrated by a lower incidence of the virus in Montana when compared to our neighboring states,” Rich Rasmussen, president and CEO of the Montana Hospital Association, said. “Our hospitals responded to this public health emergency and remain prepared to serve our patients and communities and assist in restarting our economy.”
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