Bullock on COVID-19: “The economic impact is significant to Montanans”

Montana’s unemployment rate held steady at 3.5% and added 870 jobs in the state’s latest report, but that was before COVID-19 hit, and it will likely skew those numbers in the days and weeks ahead.

In its Monday report, the state also warned of likely setbacks as bars and restaurants in Montana’s urban centers are ordered to close, and as small businesses see traffic dwindle.

“The economic impact is significant to Montanans,” Gov. Steve Bullock said on Monday. “It is a challenging time in that respect. But I think we have to do everything we can to flatten the curve on this, and try to make sure this virus is contained as well as we can.”

According to the report, the unemployment rate in Missoula County was 4.1% before the virus hit. That’s down .2 points from the same time last year. More than 1,190 jobs were added over the prior year, with 61,556 people employed.

It’s unknown how many of those jobs will be erased as businesses cut back staff and some employees find themselves out of work. It’s also unknown how long it will take to rebuild the existing employment base.

“While we don’t yet have an understanding of coronavirus and its economic impact in Montana, I am taking aggressive action to reduce the spread to keep as many Montanans healthy as possible now and protect Montana’s economic strength in the long-term,” Bullock said.

Health officials in at least four urban counties ordered all bars and restaurants to close on Monday, including those in Missoula, Bozeman and Butte. The closure will last through March 24, or possibly longer, as health officers examine current trends around infection.

Other businesses have closed out of caution. Bullock said the closures are needed to avoid long-term impacts, which could be greater than what’s now a temporary closure if no action were taken.

“This isn’t stuff from just the top down. I’ve had bar owners, restaurants owners call me and say ‘Here’s the steps we’re taking ,’ ” Bullock said. “We recognize that in challenging times we have to come together, and we have to recognize that we are impacted, but we have to take the best steps we can given the information we have while also recognizing that information can change each and every day.”