Governor says that COVID-19 data will drive decisions on reopening Montana

Posted at 5:34 PM, Apr 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-23 19:44:33-04

HELENA — As Montana begins Phase 1 of easing COVID-19 restrictions, Governor Steve Bullock says decisions on further “reopening” of the state will guided by the same principle as Phase 1 -- watching the COVID-19 infection data.

“Public health will be driving this,” he said in an interview Thursday with MTN News. “For Phase 2, we need to be looking at what is happening with additional COVID-19 positives. Is it around the state? Is it completely regionalized, or in one individual area?”

DETAILS: "Re-opening The Big Sky" plan

Montana reported three new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the cumulative total to date to 442. Single-digit daily increases have been the norm now for more than a week.

On Wednesday, Bullock announced the lifting on some restrictions, or Phase 1 of reopening the state. Churches and retail businesses can re-open on Sunday and Monday, respectively, and bars and restaurants can follow on May 4 – but still with strict social-distancing requirements. Schools also may re-open May 7, but the decision is left to local school boards.

Under Phase 2, the recommended maximum size of gatherings would be increased from 10 to 50 people and gyms, pools and hot tubs would be added to the businesses that can open. But out-of-state travel to Montana, without a quarantine, and visits to senior living facilities would still be barred until Phase 3.

The governor declined to speculate Thursday when Phase 2 or Phase 3 will take effect. He also acknowledged that the restrictions on out-of-state travel are difficult for the tourism industry, but that he wouldn’t be encouraging people to come to the state until he thought it’s safe for Montanans.

“This is a rapidly, dynamic and changing time, so we have to see what’s happening on the ground in our communities as we talk about what the next steps are and when we might reopen our state entirely for out-of-state tourism,” he said. “At this point, we have to see what happens with Phase 1, to see how our communities react and how COVID-19 reacts.”

A key part of seeing what happens is testing for the disease, and tracing the movements and contacts of those who’ve been exposed. On Wednesday, Bullock said the state will be putting in more “sentinel sites” for testing of at-risk populations, such as the elderly, the poor, people in prisons and racial minorities.

But the state doesn’t have enough tests to test those who’ve come into contact with people infected with COVID-19. Instead, those located through contact tracing by local health departments are told to isolate themselves for 14 days, and report if they develop any symptoms. “In an ideal world, a non-supply-constrained world, everybody who wanted a test could get one,” Bullock said. “We’ll continue to work on amping up testing capabilities and opportunities.”

He said while public health officials are doing most of the contact tracing now, to attempt to isolate who’s been in contact with the virus, the state has offered to pitch in on these efforts as well, where needed.

“Just as I’ve worked in every corner of the state to say, `Don’t ever tell me that supply constraints are keeping you from testing someone who’s symptomatic,’ we’ll be working closely with local health departments to say, if you need additional resources, you tell us, and we’ll work to get them for you,” Bullock said.

Montana also has at its disposal $1.25 billion of federal money, to pay for COVID-19-related costs. The state just received guidelines from the feds on how to spend the money on Wednesday night, Bullock said.

He said he’ll decide where the money might go, with the help of a task force and the input from other Montanans. However, he said the money is not simply for state and local governments to shore up their budgets, if they face a shortfall.

Bullock said the state budget was in good shape heading into the crisis two months ago, but that he expects “significant revenue shortfalls” going forward, and that he’ll be looking for efficiencies in state spending as he builds the proposed state budget for whoever his successor may be. Bullock leaves office this year and a new governor will take over in January.

As of Thursday morning (April 23), there have been a total of 442 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Montana, an increase of three since Wednesday. The new cases are two in Yellowstone County, and one in Gallatin County.

  • There have been 14 deaths in Montana to date. There have been six deaths in Toole County, two in Cascade County, two in Flathead County, and one each in Lincoln County, Madison County, Missoula County, and Yellowstone County.
  • There have been a total of 306 recovered patients to date. The number of recoveries by county has not been released at this point.
  • There have now been 59 hospitalizations to date of COVID-19 patients in Montana; 13 of those are considered "active (current) hospitalizations."
  • The DPHHS public health lab has completed 11,875 tests for COVID-19, including 292 tests since Wednesday's update.
  • Click here to see the current total of confirmed cases by county

PHASED RE-OPENING: Governor Steve Bullock announced on Wednesday a three-phase plan to "re-open" Montana, as closures and restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 will be gradually rescinded. Among the highlights of the plan:

  • The "stay at home order" will expire on April 26 for individuals and April 27 for businesses. 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. Click here for more details.
  • Businesses where groups gather without the ability to social distance including movie theaters, gyms, and other places of assembly remain closed.
  • 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.
  • On May 7, all schools will have the option to return to in-classroom teaching delivery at the discretion of local school boards. The Great Falls Public School District has not yet decided if schools will re-open; click here for details.

THE REBOUND: MONTANA: We know the COVID-19 pandemic is changing our community. To keep you and your family informed as we move forward, we're beginning a new series of reports. They are stories that will help all of us navigate through these uncertain times. In the coming weeks and months, we'll be focusing on “The Rebound: Montana.” It is a series of reports, videos, and information that show our commitment to stories that will help you as our communities begin to rebound - from what you'll need to know when it's time to go back to work, to how those in the community continue to step up and help others.