HELENA — Montana will permit counties to hold all-mail voting come November to limit the spread of the coronavirus, according to a new directive issued by Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday.
The directive was issued after the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders and the Montana Association of Counties last month called on Bullock to allow counties the option to conduct the general election vote by mail.
The Democratic governor issued a similar directive earlier this year that permitted the June 3 election to be held by mail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Following the move, the primary election saw record-high turnout.
“It only makes sense that we start preparing now to ensure that no Montanan will have to choose between their vote or their health,” Bullock said during a news conference. “They didn’t have to in June, and they shouldn’t have to in November.”
Bullock is prevented from seeking a third term because of term limits and is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Steve Daines.
The move to allow all-mail voting means counties can send ballots out to voters and expands early voting. Counties must establish and enforce social distancing policies at any in-person polling locations, designated drop-off locations or other public-facing voting facilities.
Also on Thursday, the state announced new testing policies for Montana universities to limit the spread of the respiratory virus. Montana will spend up to $20 million from a federal virus relief fund for testing and contact-tracing efforts on public university campuses, the governor said.
The Montana University System will not have universal testing policies, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said. It will instead focus testing on those at a higher risk of spreading the virus, including public-facing student workers, choir members and theater students, and students who would be at a heightened risk from contracting the virus.
“We will have a laser focus on addressing the symptomatic individuals through rapid quarantine, rapid testing and isolation of individuals who test positive,” Clayton said.
Students will be asked to self-screen daily for symptoms, wear masks in classes and avoid large gatherings.
Christian said there is no exact goal for the number of tests the university system hopes to perform. The Montana University System enrolls more than 40,000 students across 16 public universities and colleges, according to their website.
The universities will increase staffing for contact-tracing efforts, and dedicate dormitory facilities for quarantine housing, Christian said.
In other coronavirus-related news:
— Health officials confirmed 173 new COVID-19 cases in Montana. That brings the state’s total to 4,602 since the pandemic began, with more than 1,500 cases still active.
Big Horn County confirmed the deaths of three more residents Thursday, raising the county’s death toll from the virus to 14. Big Horn makes up less than 2% of Montana’s population. But 20% of the state’s coronavirus-related deaths have taken place in the county, which includes the Crow Indian Reservation.
According to a recent epidemiological report, Native Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Native Americans make up 7% of Montana residents, but 15% of total confirmed cases and 36% of confirmed deaths related to the virus as of July 26.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. 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.
— Montana applications for unemployment assistance declined during the week ending on Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Employment and Training Administration.
The number of applications fell to 1,854, a decrease of 22.4% from the number of applications submitted the previous week. The number of applications is still nearly three times larger than the number submitted the same week last year.
The Montana Department of Labor & Industry said that more than 41,000 unemployment insurance payments totaling over $40 million were issued during the same week. This marked the first week after the expiration of the $600 extra weekly federal unemployment payments for recipients, the department said.
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