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Bullock: Plans Coming For Gradual Lifting Of COVID-19 Closures

Governor Bullock talking at a Facebook live conference Apr. 17, 2020.
Montana Public Access Network
Governor Bullock talking at a Facebook live conference Apr. 17, 2020.

Updated 04/17/20, 6:50 p.m.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said plans are forming for the state to start a gradual, phased reopening as his stay-at-home and other directives expire Apr. 24.

On a press call Friday Bullock said the plan, developed by the governor’s coronavirus task force headed up by Adjutant General Matthew Quinn, will be publicly available next week.

“We've got to recognize our new normal is going to look a little bit different. The virus isn't going away and we're going to have to continue to adapt how we live with it for the next while,” he said.

Bullock said Montana does not currently meet the criteria outlined by the White House to begin sending people back to work but that Montanans are flattening the curve by following social distancing measures.

NPR reports the White House’s strategy is contingent upon states having data about case levels, the capacity to treat all patients and test healthcare workers, and the ability to trace the contacts of those infected. States can decide on a county-by-county approach, the 18-page document says.

Bullock cited similar benchmarks: a sustained reduction in new positive cases for 14 days, capacity to test all people with symptoms and the ability for hospitals to safely treat all patients, including patients with ailments unrelated to the COVID-19 illness.

Montana has added between five and 12 new cases over the past week, compared to an average of 17 last week and 19 the week prior.

Bullock said the state lab, which has analyzed more than 10,000 COVID-19 tests, is doing a sufficient number of tests but said securing materials to complete the test, along with personal protective equipment, remains a challenge. Montana’s population is one million. The state does not track negative tests Montana hospitals may send to private labs for analysis.

Bullock said Montana will reopen in phases in line with federal guidance. The first phase restricts gatherings to 10 people or fewer, with face coverings encouraged; the second limits group sizes to 50; the third provides protections for the most vulnerable people, including the elderly. Schools fall into the second phase.

Bullock said Montana businesses and specifically the tourism industry have taken financial hits and that reopening the state’s economy must balance protecting health and safety with ensuring people’s financial livelihoods.

“Even as montanans do things right, as we get to a partial reopening I do expect we will continue to have some COVID-19 positive cases. So that really is doing every piece that we can to mitigate and minimize that and make sure that we have both the supplies that we need and the healthcare facilities if we were to flare up,” he said.

Bullock said preparing for incoming summer tourists is part of the forthcoming plan.

Details about the state’s reopening plan were scarce Friday. Bullock said he’s working with the state coronavirus task force, along with members of the recently formed Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force, which includes business and banking executives, state lawmakers, tribal liaisons and representatives from the Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Association of Counties.

Bullock said as the business closure order lifts, employers may also be required to continue to maintain social distancing protocols, screen employees’ temperatures and increase facility cleanings.

He said some counties may extend local social distancing and closure orders and that schools may reopen on a district-by-district basis.

Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley on Friday said tracing contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases could become more difficult as public spaces reopen.

“What concerns me I think is that expectation that we can do population-based testing at a massive level. I don’t think we’re there yet, and I think we need a national strategy there,” Kelley said during a press conference.

Kelley said Gallatin County’s health department put together a focus group with business owners and faith leaders to figure out how to safely reopen in phases.

He said the reopening of certain businesses could be dependent on being able to keep six feet of distance between people. The health department is also looking at what personal protective equipment and cleaning standards would be needed for workers and customers to stay safe.

“The very simple truth of this is that the more contact we have between people, the more likely we’re going to see cases transmit to others,” he said.

Statewide closure and stay-at-home orders remain in effect through next Friday, April 24.