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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Montana To Lift Stay-At-Home Orders, Phase-Out Business Restrictions

COVID Phased reopening plan

Montana will lift its stay-at-home order starting April 26. Gov. Steve Bullock says the state has flattened the curve of COVID-19 spread in the state and it's time to start reopening. But he also said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon that won't happen all at once.

"While there's reason for optimism. This is no time for celebration. I'm going to ask Montanans to continue to go to great lengths to protect one another."

Corin Cates-Carney Bullock says his administration's plan will come in phases with the goal that once businesses and schools start opening back up, they can stay open. His order is full of separate timelines for how different parts of society will start opening back up.

Ouellet Before we get into that, let's touch briefly on why Bullock says the state can start reopening now.

Cates-Carney Bullock points to the state's lowest hospitalizations per capita because of COVID-19 in the nation. He also said very few states can say they've seen the number of positive cases decline over the past weeks. More than half of Montanans COVID-19 patients have recovered, and hot spots like Gallatin County only have three active cases.

Ouellet And the state previously had a list of items it was looking at for a potential reopening.

Cates-Carney Right. That included the ability to test anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms and trace contacts of known cases ability to treat all people seeking health care. COVID-19 or not. That includes having enough ICU beds and personal protective equipment. That determination also required plans to protect health and safety of people in the state with special attention to high risk groups.

Ouellet The state administration says it's met those thresholds. Bullock's Stay-at-home order was previously set to expire Friday at midnight. It's been extended now until Sunday. And Corin, what's that going to look like?

Cates-Carney While the stay at home order is getting pulled back, the administration is still telling people to avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more when in public, keep six feet apart from others and to minimize nonessential travel. This will allow places of worship, churches, to meet with social distancing.

But Montana will still have a two-week quarantine requirement for some people traveling into Montana, at risk populations or people 65 or older, or folks with underlying health conditions are supposed to continue following the state home guidance.

The ban on foreclosures and evictions also remains in effect until May 24th.

Ouellet What about businesses?

Cates-Carney Bullock's new order says starting Monday, April 27, businesses are no longer designated "essential" or "non-essential" by the state. This means retail businesses can open -- not bars and restaurants -- we'll touch on that later. But when businesses open, the state says health assessments must be conducted for workers at the start of each shift. And there still needs to be social distancing at stores, and employers must create plans to reduce contact between customers and staff.

Ouellet Can we go back to what you said about health assessments? What does that mean?

Cates-Carney The governor's office says that could include temperature checks and symptom screenings. Bullock didn't provide specifics about how he expects businesses to start including those health policies at their shops. But there is an assumption that local public health departments will play a role.

Ouellet And you said bars and restaurants are on a totally different timeline, right?

Cates-Carney Dine-in bars and restaurants will still be closed for another week and a half. The governor's order says those could open up along with breweries, distilleries and casinos on May 4th. That's a Monday. And then there's still some strict physical distancing, like they can only operate a 50 percent capacity and they'll have to close at 11:30 at night.

Reopening schools is another part of this first phase. They can reopen May 7th, Thursday, but that'll be up to local school boards to decide, some of which have already said they're going to stay on line the rest of the school year.

Ouellet Right. So that's phase one. Any sense of how long this phase might last?

Cates-Carney No idea. Bullock said that the state is looking at how things play out on the ground.

Ouellet I've been in email contact with a spokesperson from the state health department. He said the state has enough testing material to trace contacts and test everyone with symptoms -- which are two big requirements for this plan going forward. But we know that some counties have and continue to struggle ordering testing materials and protective equipment. The state says this is an issue they're working on every day. Bullock says counties have been doing a good job tracing contacts and isolating and quarantining known or potential cases. And he says that that should continue as we move forward.

Cates-Carney But it sounds like supplies might still be a challenge as Montana reopens. But Bullock says we're going to move forward and the state is still working on getting more of those supplies.

Ouellet So phases two and three: They might be a ways off, but what else opens up under those?

Cates-Carney Under phase two, the governor says people could start gathering in groups up to 50. Vulnerable populations are still supposed to stay at home, and everyone is supposed to continue physical distancing.

Under this phase, under phase two, gyms and pools can reopen. But there's still some social distancing rules. Childcare facilities can increase their capacity, but then when we move to Phase 3 -- again, we don't know when that's going to happen -- But it would do away with group sizes, and vulnerable populations could return to society, although everyone would still have to practice physical distancing. Senior care facilities can have visitors under the Phase 3 and campgrounds, playgrounds other group use outdoor recreation facilities will be fully open.

Ouellet And again, there's no timeline of when we'll even move out of phase one.

Cates-Carney Right. Bullock says it's expected that we'll see an increase in new cases when we emerge from our homes. But he shied away from saying what it would take for the entire state to wind up under a new stay at home water.

"I'm concerned whenever social distancing protocols aren't followed, and I'm concerned as we start to reopen up things -- and I think all Montanans should know -- we'll probably see additional cases."

Ouellet Montanans reopening plan is pretty similar to guidance that the White House put out last week, but with a few Montana-specific tweaks. For example, the White House plan says bars shouldn't open until Phase 2. Montana has them reopening as part of phase one. The White House also says nonessential travel can resume in phase two, and Montana is holding off until Phase 3 for that.

Cates-Carney Bullock is really putting some of the decision-making here on reinstating social distancing orders onto local and regional public health and governments. You said counties and tribes might enact or extend their own closure orders to try and curb localized outbreaks.

Ouellet And it seems the new order caught at least some county health departments a little off guard. Missoula County, for example, said it received the reopening plan the same time as it was made public. So they're still reviewing it before they offer any kind of local guidance.

Cates-Carney Most counties say they're reviewing the plan and will release local guidance soon. For example, Lewis and Clark County says it will have guidance out by Friday about which businesses are allowed to open next week. And they're asking each business to write up a plan outlining how to implement social distancing and other protective measures.

Ouellet Tribes are also taking pretty varied approaches. Our reporter Kayla Desroches looked into this. She says that Fort Belknap unified command is suggesting the tribe doesn't lift any of their local restrictions, and that includes a reservation wide 10 p.m. curfew. Instead, Fort Belknap is going to wait for a couple of weeks and see how the state's reopening goes and then they'll plan. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are going to meet on Thursday with nearby counties and kind of figure out how to move forward. And then the Crow tribe is going to keep its curfew, nonessential business closures in place until April 30th.

Cates-Carney What are you seeing as far as other initial reactions around Montanans?

Ouellet My reporter, Kay Erickson spoke with a salon owner in Billings who said it was about time that she could reopen. She seemed pretty excited. The Montana Hospital Association says Montanans can be confident in the health care systems ability to respond to any spikes we might see as restrictions start to lift. And the association is also lifting its recommendation that they made back at the end of March that hospitals should cancel elective procedures. It seems like those will be opening back up again. School boards will now be taking up the decision of how and when they want to reopen, whether that's in person or continuing remote learning through the end of the school year.

Cates-Carney That's a lot to digest. The state is going to start phasing out its stay-at-home order, but still no groups greater than 10. Keeping up social distancing is still recommended. Vulnerable people are still encouraged to stay home. And the state is still asking people to minimize nonessential travel.

See the governor's plan.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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