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Bullock: COVID-19 data will drive decisions on reopening Montana

Posted at 5:01 PM, Apr 23, 2020

As Montana begins Phase 1 of easing coronavirus restrictions, Gov. Steve Bullock says decisions on further “reopening” of the state will guided by the same principle as Phase 1: Watching the COVID-10 infection data.

“Public health will be driving this,” he said in an interview Thursday with MTN News. “For Phase 2, we need to be looking at what is happening with additional COVID-19 positives. Is it around the state? Is it completely regionalized, or in one individual area?”

Montana reported three new cases of the virus Thursday to push the state total to 442. Single-digit daily increases have been the norm now for more than a week.

On Wednesday, Bullock announced the lifting on some restrictions, or Phase 1 of reopening the state. Churches and retail businesses can re-open on Sunday and Monday, respectively, and bars and restaurants can follow on May 4 – but still with strict social-distancing requirements.

Schools also may re-open May 7, but Bullock left that decision to local school boards.

Under Phase 2, the recommended maximum size of gatherings would be increased from 10 to 50 people and gyms, pools and hot tubs would be added to the businesses that can open. But out-of-state travel to Montana, without a quarantine, and visits to senior living facilities would still be barred until Phase 3.

The governor declined to speculate Thursday when Phase 2 or Phase 3 will take effect.

He also acknowledged that the restrictions on out-of-state travel are difficult for the tourism industry, but that he wouldn’t be encouraging people to come to the state until he thought it’s safe for Montanans.

“This is a rapidly, dynamic and changing time, so we have to see what’s happening on the ground in our communities as we talk about what the next steps are and when we might reopen our state entirely for out-of-state tourism,” he said. “At this point, we have to see what happens with Phase 1, to see how our communities react and how COVID-19 reacts.”

A key part of seeing what happens is testing for the disease, and tracing the movements and contacts of those who’ve been exposed.

On Wednesday, Bullock said the state will be putting in more “sentinel sites” for testing of at-risk populations, such as the elderly, the poor, people in prisons and racial minorities.

But the state doesn’t have enough tests to test those who’ve come into contact with people infected with COVID-19. Instead, those located through contact tracing by local health departments are told to isolate themselves for 14 days, and report if they develop any symptoms.

“In an ideal world, a non-supply-constrained world, everybody who wanted a test could get one,” Bullock said. “We’ll continue to work on amping up testing capabilities and opportunities.”

He said while local health officials are doing most of the contact tracing now, to attempt to isolate who’s been in contact with the virus, the state has offered to pitch in on these efforts as well, where needed.

“Just as I’ve worked in every corner of the state to say, `Don’t ever tell me that supply constraints are keeping you from testing someone who’s symptomatic,’ we’ll be working closely with local health departments to say, if you need additional resources, you tell us, and we’ll work to get them for you,” Bullock said.

Montana also has at its disposal $1.25 billion of federal money, to pay for COVID-19-related costs. The state just received guidelines from the feds on how to spend the money on Wednesday night, Bullock said.

He said he’ll decide where the money might go, with the help of a task force and the input from other Montanans. However, he said the money is not simply for state and local governments to shore up their budgets, if they face a shortfall.

Bullock said the state budget was in good shape heading into the crisis two months ago, but that he expects “significant revenue shortfalls” going forward, and that he’ll be looking for efficiencies in state spending as he builds the proposed state budget for whoever his successor may be. Bullock leaves office this year and a new governor will take over in January.