Calling it a dynamic and evolving situation, Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday ordered public schools and certain businesses to remain closed though April 10, saying the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Montana will likely continue to increase.

In a press briefing, Bullock also prohibited non-essential gatherings of more than 10 people, and he suspended state laws requiring local government offices to be open during certain hours if they cannot safely operate under social distancing guidelines.

“It's easy to get wrapped up in the numbers, and the numbers are indeed significant,” Bullock said. “Yesterday we saw an increase of about 25% of our COVID positive population in Montana. While I wish it were otherwise, I expect those numbers to be increasing as some community spread occurs and further testing is done. That's cause for real concern.”

As of Tuesday evening, 51 positive cases of coronavirus had been reported in the state, including 19 cases in Gallatin County, where health officials have seen signs of community spread. The average age of a COVID-positive patient in Montana is 46, Bullock said.

Health officials believe that maintaining social distances will help flatten the curve and lessen the strain on local hospitals. That, he added, will save lives in the end.

“Working together as Montanans, we have the ability to both mitigate and get out in front of this, and that's exactly what we're focused on doing,” Bullock said. “The ability to control the spread does rest with each and everyone one of us.”

Bullock initially closed all K-12 public schools on March 15. The order was set to expire on Tuesday, though Bullock extended it through April 10, at which point it will be reconsidered.

The governor also continued his order closing all restaurants and bars, less take-out services, through April 10. On Tuesday, he made his original recommendation to limit social gatherings to 10 or less people a directive.

“At the same time we're extending the closures, we're also preparing for a potential increase of patients at hospitals,” Bullock said. “We're doing everything we can in our capacity as a state to prepare to take care of critically ill patients, as well as if we end up getting numerous COVID-19 positive patients at our hospitals, and ensure there's hospital space to respond.”

As part of Tuesday's rapid changes, Bullock also waived some restrictions on the paperwork required to move patients back into their home community or another hospital setting. He also streamlined the state's ability to order supplies and secure additional space.

Gov. Steve Bullock
Gov. Steve Bullock

“To put it simply, it allows both the state and our hospitals to act more efficiently,” he said. “We continue to explore every avenue available to bring additional supplies to our state.”

Efforts on that front remain challenging, though Bullock noted progress. He said the state is distribution supplies from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, along with the first shipment of supplies from the strategic national stockpile, to local hospitals, EMS units and federally qualified health centers.

The state also received 50,000 masks from North Dakota through a mutual aid agreement. Bullock said additional personal protect equipment should be coming this week. The state lab also received additional swabs and test kits on Tuesday.

“Each of these areas is something we're working on each and every day,” Bullock said. “The swabs had been ordered from a private supplier a week ago today. That order was canceled by the supplier based on demand and federal government needing the resources.”

Bullock said negotiations with FEMA and the Office of the Vice President helped resolve the situation.

The governor on Tuesday also suspended certain office hour requirements in state law to allow for limited closures when local governments can't safely operate within social distancing guidelines.

“I'm pleased that local governments know they can play a role in slowing the virus and our taking these measures of trying to both contain and distance seriously,” Bullock said.