Montana Public Radio

Montana Entering Phase 2 Of COVID-19 Reopening Plan

May 29, 2020

On June 1, Montana will enter into Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney and YPR's Nicky Ouellet explain what that means for individuals, businesses and tourists.

Find more information about what COVID-19 restrictions are in place in Montana.

Cates-Carney: That means group sizes can increase to 50 people with social distancing; businesses, bars and restaurants can increase capacity to 75 percent; and a requirement for people coming into the state to quarantine for 14 days will also lift. Some aspects of Phase 1, like a recommendation for people over 65 years-old or with underlying health conditions to continue to shelter at home, remain in place.

COVID-19 guidelines for tourists during phase 2 of Montana's reopening.
Credit Montana Disaster and Emergency Services

Ouellet: Gov. Steve Bullock says Montana’s continued low case count and hospitalization rate for the COVID-19 illness are signals the state is ready to take this step. A big question moving forward is, how will tourists coming into Montana in the coming summer months impact the disease spread. Here’s what Bullock said on a press call Thursday afternoon.

“As we move to phase 2 starting this coming Monday, June 1, we are asking the same of our visitors as we do of Montanans. If you’re going to come to our state, heed state and local restrictions as well as the guidelines set by businesses.”

Cates-Carney: Summer tourism is a massive economic driver in some Montana counties, where some towns can literally double in size as snowbirds return and vacationers pack into hotels. Bullock says the state is putting $15 million into a statewide campaign aimed at educating tourists before they come to Montana and after they get here.

That money is from the one and a quarter billion dollars Montana got through the COronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. The state is also putting $20 million of that into a new grant program to reimburse businesses for costs of keeping staff and customers protected.

“Expenses include things like the purchase of personal protective equipment, installation of sneeze guards, hand sanitizer, resources for remote work equipment, cleaning supplies and more."

Ouellet: Bullock also said the state Department of Commerce identified 20 destination counties to receive support from the state to boost COVID-19 testing and contact tracing capacity. That could include help from 150 Montana National Guardsmen who’ve been directed to take online contact-tracing certification courses.

Cates-Carney: Gallatin County is one of the places the governor’s office is keeping an eye on because of its proximity to Yellowstone National Park and popularity among roadtrippers.

I called Gallatin City-County’s Health Officer Matt Kelley last week. He said the main focus for the county is West Yellowstone. And a big thing there is the uncertainty of just how many visitors are going to come and how many might need health care.

“That’s what’s so challenging about it. West Yellowstone in a non-pandemic year, health care services are tough because the town goes from 1,300 people during the winter to up to 16,000 people. So with that sort of variation in population level, it’s really a challenge for health care organizations to live in that environment on a year around basis. And then you add a pandemic on top of that. And the uncertainty that that creates really makes it even more difficult."

Kelley says as people across the country are looking for vacations, he wouldn’t be surprised if they look at Yellowstone and see it as a pretty good option. But he says it’s hard to predict what will actually happen.

He says testing is going to play a big role in monitoring for potential cases. This is something we’ve heard Bullock talk about too.

Kelly was confident they had enough testing materials to test people who have COVID-19 symptoms. But when I talked to Kelley last week he said testing capacity is less clear for people who aren’t showing symptoms.

Ouellet: Big Horn County is another on the state’s list. It’s small compared to Gallatin but it sees a lot of people passing through for fishing trips on the Big Horn River and Yellowtail Dam or coming through to Yellowstone. Big Horn County’s COVID-19 incident commander Bill Hodges said they do see an uptick of people in the summer and they’re preparing for Phase 2.

“There's been some hesitation, I think, from us. We wish we could have had a little bit more extension. but we support the governor, it needs to get reopened, and part of phase 2 opening is going to be more case presentations. I think we're as prepared as we can possibly be prepared at this juncture.”

Ouellet: Hodges says they’ve brought 9 nurses out of retirement to help with contact tracing. There’s lots of collaboration between the county, Crow Nation and Indian Health Service, along with nearby hospitals for surge capacity. He says getting certain PPE like masks and gowns remains a struggle.

What’s interesting is that as Montana is opening up, several tribal nations are voting to prolong local business closures and non-essential travel restrictions.

Cates-Carney: Tribal governments on Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Flathead, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s reservations all have stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders in effect.

Robert McDonald, the communications director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead says the tribal council is taking a much more conservative approach to COVID-19.

“The CSKT takes the corona threat very seriously to protect our elders. So, temporarily our tribes have limited access to tribal lands that require a recreational permit for entry. So only residents of the reservation with a current rec permit may enter these lands."

Ouellet: So to recap, the state of Montana is entering phase 2 of its economic reopening plan Monday, June 1. But some areas — notably Native American reservations and national parks — remain under stricter orders.

Cates-Carney: Businesses can take more small steps toward reopening, and group sizes can get a little bigger, still with social distancing.

Ouellet: wash your hands!