HELENA – Montana’s governor announced additional coronavirus relief money for state businesses as the pandemic stretches into its fifth month, a mask mandate for schools in nearly half of the state’s counties and said the state will begin paying the extra $400 in weekly unemployment benefits that President Donald Trump announced over the weekend.
New cases of COVID-19 are leveling off in Montana, but are not going down, and Gov. Steve Bullock urged residents to continue to wear masks and follow public health directives to help prevent the spread of the respiratory virus.
“The way that we learn to live with this virus in our presence is living in a way where we recognize and acknowledge that significant risk is present, yet collectively we’re acting to mitigate this risk,” Bullock said, and not by “ignoring or denying or thinking that it’ll somehow just magically disappear one day.”
Businesses that already received grants under the business stabilization program are eligible for up to another $10,000, Bullock said Wednesday. Those who haven’t already applied are eligible for up to $20,000.
Bullock also announced a new grant program for live entertainment businesses, which have been shut down entirely.
Montana-based businesses whose revenue comes primarily from live entertainment events are eligible for up to 25% of their 2019 gross revenue, or a maximum of $1 million per applicant. A total of $10 million is available.
Nick Checota, owner of Logjam Presents and member of the governor’s COVID-19 Relief Fund Task Force, advocated for relief funding for live entertainment businesses, saying they were the first to close as COVID-19 spread across the country and would be among the last to reopen due to limits on the sizes of gatherings.
“In our present situation, in order to ensure public health, we have no opportunity to generate revenue and we have no work to offer our employees,” Checota wrote to the chair of the governor’s task force on April 22. He said because of that, such businesses were not eligible for federal Payroll Protection Plan money.
Montana will fulfill President Trump’s executive order to give the unemployed an additional $400 weekly payment, following the expiration in late July of an additional $600 weekly payment, Bullock said.
While Congress has not allocated the money for the additional payments, and it may take weeks for the federal government to provide guidance, Bullock said Montana will use some of its $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief money to begin providing those additional unemployment payments.
As schools prepare to reopen in the next few weeks, Bullock extended his July 15 mask mandate to all public and private schools in counties where there are four or more active cases of COVID-19. As of Wednesday, the order would apply to 25 of the state’s 56 counties.
While the number of new reported virus cases in Montana are rising, “we’re not seeing the exponential growth,” that preceded the mask mandate, Bullock said.
Still, some people aren’t following recommendations for wearing masks, social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings, he said.
A recent outbreak of 68 cases in Phillips County, which has just over 4,000 residents, was tied to an adult sports activity followed by an outing to a bar and other social events that allowed the virus to spread, Bullock said. There are also people who aren’t following county health department directives to isolate or quarantine if they’ve tested positive or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive.
Montana announced 175 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the state’s known number of cases to 5,286. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. Eighty people have died and 97 people are hospitalized.
For most people, the new 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.
Bullock acknowledged people are fatigued as the pandemic enters its fifth month, but he urged residents to remain optimistic that “our collective actions will make a difference.”
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