HELENA — Fearing a potential setback in the state’s economic reopening, business leaders joined Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday to urge Montanans to “mask up” and avoid large crowds, which have triggered a number of COVID-19 clusters in recent weeks.
Montana surged past its 1000th case of coronavirus on Wednesday, and 222 of those cases are from this week alone. The state currently has 398 active cases of virus and an even longer list of potential contacts needing quarantine.
“It’s clear from analyzing new cases that Montanans have let their guard down,” Bullock said. “There’s been six weddings with cases associated with them. In the last two weeks alone, these six weddings in five different counties directly contributed at least 24 cases to our state’s count. These cases have impacted at least seven counties and two other states.”
Bullock said current evidence gathered through contact tracing doesn’t suggest that out-of-state guests have brought the virus into Montana. Rather, in some instances, the virus may have been exported from Montana to other states, including those who attended the recent weddings.
Contact tracing also has connected a jump in cases to bar settings, where crowd control and other guidelines aren’t being followed. Gallatin and Yellowstone counties have identified and traced at least 15 recent cases to local bars.
“That’s 15 cases that came from interactions in just three different establishments,” Bullock said. “Clusters of cases have also been reported in a variety of work settings, including construction crews and office settings. Even the Missoula Fire Department isn’t immune.”
Eight counties across the state, including Flathead, Missoula and Ravalli, have found signs of community spread. Other counties will likely see the same in the coming weeks as the virus continues its forward march, health experts believe.
Bullock said the percent of cases directly connected to out-of-state travel hasn’t changed, accounting for about 8% of all cases since June 1. That’s when the state entered Phase 2 of the economic reopening and the mandatory quarantine of returning residents and visitors was lifted.
“Our biggest problem hasn’t been out-of-state visitors visiting Montana. It’s Montanans not taking all the steps we need to be to limit the transmission of COVID-19,” Bullock said.
The spike in cases and the inability for some to follow national health guidelines around social distancing and masking has members of the business community concerned.
If the public doesn’t do its part to slow the virus from spreading, some fear a potential return to more strict guidelines to protect public health.
“We take the threat of COVID-19 seriously, not only for the impacts the disease has on our employees, but on our customers and on the Montana economy as a whole,” said Todd O’Hair, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.
O’Hair noted other states that have gone back to closing various businesses and said Montana cannot afford to do so given the toll the initial round of closures had on the economy. The Montana chamber, along with other industry associations from bars and restaurants to gaming and hospitality, are expected to get more aggressive on calling for face masks in their establishments.
The Missoula City-County Health Department may make it mandatory in the coming days.
“Government grants, low-interest loans, and business bailout dollars cannot compare to healthy economic activity,” O’Hair said. “Businesses will not be able to survive in Montana without healthy economic activity in the state. The best salve for the Montana economy is going to be a healthy population.”
Wearing a mask is an effective and easy way to stop the spread of COVID-19, Bullock said.
“Masking up is the responsible thing to do,” he said. “I anticipate you’ll be seeing more from businesses speaking up on the importance of this in the coming days and weeks. I’m hopeful Montanans will take seriously the recommendations of all those who work on the front lines so we don’t get to the point of a mandate on this.”