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Montana Governor Announces Phased Reopening Plan

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, seen last September, has announced a plan to reopen the state's businesses now closed because of the coronavirus.
Jose Luis Magana
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, seen last September, has announced a plan to reopen the state's businesses now closed because of the coronavirus.

Saying his state has flattened the curve of coronavirus spread, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday released a plan outlining how churches, businesses and schools can open their doors again over the next three weeks.

But significantly for this tourism-dependent state, a 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors remains, with an exemption for those visiting for work.

With fewer than 450 lab-confirmed cases among its 1.09 million residents Montana has one of the lowest case rates in the country.

"While there is reason for optimism this is no time to celebrate," Bullock said. "I'm going to continue to ask Montanans to continue to go to great lengths to protect one another."

Montana is one of a few states where the rate of new cases appears to be flat or declining in the last two past weeks, a key benchmark in guidelines laid out by the White House last Thursday for states to begin to reopen.

More than half of Montana's COVID-19 patients have recovered, and the county with the state's highest number of infections had only three active cases Wednesday.

Bullock says Montana now has the ability to test anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms and trace contacts of known cases, and the capacity to treat all people seeking health care.

"Now that the data show effective and sustained containment and control of the virus" hospitals will resume elective procedures, said Montana Hospital Association CEO Rich Rasmussen. But he said hospitals and health departments still find it challenging to secure supplies like testing materials and personal protective equipment.

Phase one of Montana's plan starts Sunday with people being allowed to gather in groups of 10 or fewer, but otherwise being required to keep six feet apart and minimize nonessential travel. Churches will be allowed to reopen Sunday as long as they have the capacity to maintain six feet of distance between family groups, who will be allowed to sit together.

On Monday retail business can reopen if employers conduct worker health assessments at the start of shifts and have plans to reduce contact between customers and staff. Other businesses are encouraged to continue telework and stagger shifts.

Dine-in restaurants and bars won't reopen until May 4. They'll be required to operate at half capacity, close by 11:30 p.m. and design plans to spread patrons apart.

Local school boards can also allow students to return to classrooms May 7 if they wish, or continue remote learning.

There's no timeline for the state to move beyond phase one. Montana's next two phases continue to gradually increase allowable group sizes and reopen businesses like gyms and child care centers with social distancing requirements. The last phase calls for senior care facilities to allow visitors.

Bullock said an increase in new cases is expected as people emerge from their homes but he shied away from saying what it would take for him to reimpose a statewide stay-at-home order.

The governor is a two-term Democrat running to unseat Montana's Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Bullock has been accused by state GOP leaders of not taking economic disruption caused by his March 26 stay at home order seriously enough.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.

Nicky Ouellet