Bullock announces plan to gradually reopen Montana

by Heidi Desch
Whitefish Pilot | April 22, 2020 1:56 PM

A gradual reopening of Montana will begin this weekend, Gov. Steve Bullock announced Wednesday afternoon.

The stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 is being lifted on Sunday, April 26 allowing for churches to meet and some business to reopen, but the governor continues to urge residents to practice social distancing and to wear masks in public settings.

“This is not the time for that celebratory block party or barbecue,” Bullock said.

The governor stressed that the “new normal is going to look different” as the virus isn’t gone from the state and Montana moves through a phased reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Retail businesses can reopen on April 27, but must adhere to requirements to limit capacity and maintaining physical distancing. Restaurants, bars, breweries and distilleries can reopen on May 4 with restrictions on services. Schools have the option to reopen on May 7.

The governor released a three-phased approach to reopen the state that provides guidelines for individuals and employers at each phase.

During the first phase, all vulnerable individuals over 65 years of age and those with underlying health conditions are asked to remain at home. For all individuals in public settings, physical distancing should be maintained and the gathering of groups of 10 or more people should be avoided.

Employers are asked to encourage telework whenever possible, and when not possible are encouraged to use alternate work schedules. They are also asked to monitor workers for symptoms and close common areas where employees congregate.

Bullock said there’s no expiration date on when phase one will end and the state can move into the second phase and that will be determined by several factors including data and consultation with health officials.

“We need to see first how phase one works,” he said, also noting that local health departments and governments may implement restrictions greater than what’s in place at the state level.

In phase one, restaurants, bars and casinos can open after May 4 while reducing capacity to 50% of normal to allow for increased table spacing between customers. Increased cleaning measures must be taken and establishments must close by 11:30 p.m.

Retail businesses allowed to open on April 17 must also take steps to ensure physical distancing of 6 feet between customers. Salons and tattoo shops will be allowed to operate, but also need to provide for physical distance between clients.

Schools have the option beginning on May 7 to return to in-classroom instruction, but that decision will be made by local school boards. If schools reopen, they are to consider implementing physical distancing.

Recreational guidelines in the first two phases, call for public lands, fishing access sites and parks to continue to provide outdoor recreation opportunities while adhering to social distancing. Limited campground offerings may be opened at the desecration of local and state managers.

Bullock said he has spoken with the superintendents of national parks in Montana and that he hopes they would follow the phased approach. Glacier National Park is one of more than 100 parks nationwide that closed due to the coronavirus.

“I hope they respect and work with us as we work through these phased approaches,” he said.

In phase one, assisted living facilities remain closed to visitors, while child care facilities remain open. Youth activities can consider operating if physical distancing guidelines are implemented.

Gyms, pools, movie theaters and bowling alleys remain closed during the first phase.

Montana has a total of 439 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the state, with more than 11,500 tests confirmed. The state has recorded 14 deaths related to the virus, and 296 people have recovered.

The first COVID-19 case was reported in the state on March 11. It took 13 days to reach 100 reported cases.

The stay-at-home order went into effect on March 28, allowing for only the operation of essential businesses and services. Bullock said taking quick action last month has flattened the curve in Montana and kept the number of cases as one of the lowest in the United States.

“There are very few states in the country that can say they have seen the number of positive cases decline over these past weeks,” Bullock said. “Montana can say that because, together, we have made that decline in cases possible.”

Bullock said the decision to reopen was based on data and consultation with public health experts, health care providers, business leaders and emergency management professionals.

“We’ve looked at the best ways to be protective of the public health, but also unleashing our economy,” he said.

A travel quarantine remains in effect asking those that travel out of state to self-quarantine for 14 days. Residents are also asked to minimize non-essential travel.

“I recognize that the tourism industry is hurting, but this first phase isn’t the time to open to visitors,” he said.

In phase two, vulnerable individuals should continue to remain at home and telework is still recommended.

Gatherings may expand to 50 people, and gyms and pools can reopen. Restaurants and bars can increase to an operating capacity of 75%.

In the third phase, most restrictions are lifted, but social distancing is encouraged, along with increased cleaning. Campgrounds and visitors centers can also fully open in the final phase.

Bullock said that easing of restrictions should not be considered a victory.

“While there’s reason for optimism this is no time for celebration,” he said. “We still need to be vigilant.”

Officials continue to encourage practicing good hygiene by washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer frequently, and in addition disinfecting surfaces as much as possible. People who feel sick should remain at home.

For more information, visit https://covid19.mt.gov/