HELENA — As Montana’s COVID-19 case toll continues to mount, Gov. Steve Bullock said Thursday he is wary of imposing stricter statewide restrictions to limit the spread of the virus without additional federal aid to unemployed individuals and small businesses.
“I never wanted to punish the businesses that are doing right in this pandemic to keep their employees and customers safe. Shutting down those businesses would do just that,” he said during a news conference.
Bullock, a Democrat who last week lost a high-profile bid for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, blamed Congress for failing to pass an additional stimulus package necessary to protect small businesses and low-income families during a stay-at-home order.
Bullock issued a stay-at-home order in March, the same month Congress passed a large federal relief act. Montana’s initial stay-at-home order was gradually lifted during the spring months.
Of the $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief funds allocated to Montana in March, $1.23 billion has been committed to various grant programs and reimbursements for expenses related to the coronavirus, leaving little funding to support small businesses that would face the brunt of an additional shutdown order, the governor said.
“There’s very little that can be done from the state level for those businesses at this point,” Bullock said.
Despite continued warnings from health officials, a mask mandate issued by Bullock in July has faced persistent opposition, with some businesses facing legal action after failing to comply. The mask requirement, which applies to counties with four or more active cases of the coronavirus, is in effect in all but five of the state’s 56 counties.
Bullock cited a model from the University of Washington, which found that 600 lives could be saved in Montana in the coming months if everyone followed the masking requirement.
“We do have public health restrictions in place that currently are not being followed by everyone,” Bullock said. “I do have concerns that further restrictions also will not be followed, yet continue to consult with state and local public health about options.”
Greg Holzman, the state’s chief medical officer, said COVID-19 is currently the fourth-leading cause of death in the state, and he expects it be responsible for additional deaths in the coming months. The state has so far reported 472 deaths related to the virus.
Holzman said returning to a full lockdown of businesses, as was in place in the spring months, “would definitely help” in curbing the spread of the virus but would put families living paycheck to paycheck “in dire straits.”
Even in the best-case scenario, a vaccine would not be available in widespread use during the winter months, Holzman said, issuing a warning against large family gatherings during the holiday season.
Bullock, whose term as governor will end in January, said he has offered the support of his coronavirus team to the incoming administration of Republican Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, who has said he would work to protect vulnerable members of society, while reopening the state’s economy.
Bullock has not made a decision about what he will do once his term as governor ends, his spokesperson said.
With a mounting case count, the state continued to report outbreaks in congregate settings. Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, Montana’s only state-run psychiatric hospital, recorded 24 active cases among patients and six infected hospital staff members on Wednesday, the Montana Standard reported. The outbreak has led to two recent deaths.
The COVID-19 outbreak in the Montana State Prison is Deer Lodge continued to grow, according to figures released Monday, which showed 323 inmates and 114 prison staff had tested positive.
Meanwhile, Yellowstone County’s health department announced Wednesday that no new COVID-19 restrictions would be introduced, after reviewing data on new cases and infection rates.
County health officer John Felton said earlier this week the department would consider tightening restrictions on businesses and gatherings in light of the growing number of cases in the region. The decision to hold off on new restrictions came after data showed the number of cases in Yellowstone country dropped last week, compared with the week prior.
State health officials reported 962 new cases of the respiratory virus Thursday, bringing the total case count in the state to over 43,000. However, health officials said that problems with the state’s reporting website could have led to an artificially lower number of cases.
The number of cases is thought to be far higher than reported because not everyone has been tested, and people can have COVID-19 without showing any symptoms.
Nearly 500 people are currently hospitalized with the virus.
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.
Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.