Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Friday laid out some of the things that need to happen before he would gradually lift restrictions the state has been under since late March to slow the spread of COVID-19.
All of Bullock's directives, such as a stay-at-home order and the closure of public K-12 schools, are set to expire April 24. If things continue on a trajectory toward meeting Bullock's benchmarks, that's when a rolling back of some restrictions could start. By next week Bullock said there will be more details about what the first phase of a "new normal" will look like.
"We all need to understand this will be a gradual process, because once we begin to re-open, we want to be able to stay open. And we've got to recognize our new normal is going to look a little bit different," Bullock said. "The virus isn't going away, and we're going to have to continue to adapt with how we live with it for the next while."
For the state to start a new phase in its response to COVID-19, Bullock said he would need to see two weeks of sustained reductions in daily case growth, as well as the ability for hospitals to treat all patients (both those with COVID-19 and others) and increased testing capacity.
By Friday, COVID-19 had killed 10 Montanans and sickened more than 422. Statewide 233 had recovered. Case growth this week has been slower than the previous two weeks. And Bullock said by the weekend, if the trend continues, Montana will have reached 14 days where the number of positive tests declined.
Adjutant General Matthew Quinn last week started planning for a gradual re-opening based on military strategic planning principles, Bullock said.
The announcement comes a day after President Donald Trump released guidance on re-opening, though the final decision for each state lies with their governors. Trump said some states like Montana would meet the criteria to lift regulations by Friday. But Bullock said that's not the case because of, among other things, an inability for states to get enough testing supplies from the federal government.
"By some of these standards, there's no state that could get there even today," Bullock said.
Over the last few weeks the state has requested from the federal government more than 30,000 of the swabs needed to perform tests, but received only 4,000.
"Every governor will tell you, we need the federal government to be working with us, certainly not competing with us," Bullock said.
The 15 Abbott testing machines Montana has received, which can return test results in 15 minutes, will play a critical role in monitoring any potential clusters of cases as the state re-opens. But they can't be used to their full capacity because there are only 40 tests available for each machine right now. Bullock said Trump, in a call with governors, promised Montana would get more, though the governor questioned if and when that would happen.
"We've heard promises at times from Washington that haven't always completely materialized," Bullock said.
While Montana, like almost every other place in the country, has been limited in how many testing supplies it's been able to access, Bullock said he had a "degree of a level of confidence" the state has an accurate picture of the virus' spread here.
"We fall ... around the middle of the country for test per capita. But our numbers of hospitalizations and indeed deaths would be a lot higher if we had a lot more of the virus out there that was just going completely undetected," Bullock said.
Following the federal guidance, schools would not open in the first phase of lifting restrictions. Bullock said it's too early to say when he'd lift his directive that closed public K-12 schools, and added local school districts will still have the final say on if they bring back students this year.
He also said over the next week, Quinn and others will decide how to handle pressures from potential tourists coming to Montana this summer.
"Recognizing that we can control our destiny to a certain degree, but also recognizing when you talk about an industry that's been hit, the tourism industry has been significantly hit," Bullock said. "So as we look at phased re-opening that's part of how we can be most protective, but how we can also make sure people can have their livelihoods."
In a tele-townhall before Friday's announcement from the governor, Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen Steve Daines called for “safely reopening Montana’s economy.”
“Unemployment is skyrocketing. We’ve never seen this kind of job loss," Daines said. "Small businesses are closing their doors and owners are wondering if they’re going to have to let hard-working employees go. The spread of the virus and transmission is slowing. New cases are declining, and there’s now a much higher percentage of negative cases compared to positive cases (in terms of test results).”
Daines said half of Montana counties don’t have a single confirmed case, and two-thirds of Montana counties have either one case or zero.
In a follow-up email, Daines' communications team clarified that he believes bars should remain closed, but that restaurants and places of worship can operate "under strict physical distancing protocols." He also said elective surgeries should resume. Hospitals are losing significant money from having postponed elective procedures. The email also said Daines believes people should not socialize in groups of more than 10, employers should encourage tele-work whenever possible and non-essential travel should be minimized.
Bullock on Friday, as he has over the last week, emphasized that even under a lifting of restrictions, day-to-day life won't be like it was before.
"Be it a school or a restaurant, things are going to look different with partial re-openings and full re-openings than they would before the coronavirus came," Bullock said. " ... Even as Montanans do things right, as we get to a partial re-opening, I do expect that we'll continue to have some COVID-19 positive cases."
The governor acknowledged will will be a difficult balance to lift some of the restrictions that have slowed the virus' spread but also hampered the state's economy.
"I know that this crisis is hurting Montana and Montanans. But I also know that if we get this wrong, it'll hurt us even more," Bullock said.
— Reporter David Erickson contributed to this story.
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