Local government and health officials on Wednesday urged the public to “go forth and celebrate” Missoula’s phased reopening and support local businesses as they struggle to find their feet.
But along the way, they added, consumers must take precautions and follow the protocols, otherwise businesses across the city could be back where they started at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic with a closed sign hanging on the door.
“This is definitely the right time to start moving forward,” said Cindy Farr, head of the pandemic response for the Missoula City-County Health Department. “We haven’t had any new cases in exactly two weeks, which is exactly one incubation period for COVID-19. But we need to appreciate there still is risk. We want the sacrifices and work we’ve done to matter.”
During a joint city-county press conference on Wednesday, members of the health department and elected officials attributed the efforts of local residents over the past month for hampering further spread of the virus.
At the same time, they warned, the virus is still present and could rebound, especially as some businesses are permitted to reopen, even if it’s under stringent guidelines.
“As we enter this new phase, it’s an opportunity for us to be respectful, conscientious and care for one another, and that means following the protocols,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said.
“We did not flip a switch and COVID-19 has gone away. But we do believe we can enter the slow phase of reopening safely. Provided that we all cooperate and do it collectively, we’ll keep our numbers low or keep that case level at zero, but it’s going to take all of us working together.”
It’s still unknown how deeply the shutdown bit into local businesses, though the impacts will grow clear over the coming weeks and months.
A report by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana last month projected that the northwest region of the state, including Missoula, will be hardest hit, losing up to 8% of its workforce, or roughly 16,000 jobs.
A number of local closures have already been announced over the past week, and those with an eye on the local economy don’t expect the phased reopening to save all businesses.
“We are going to lose businesses in our community, and what we’ve seen is probably just the start of what could come,” said Grant Kier, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. “This is an incredibly hard time on individuals, and it’s an incredibly hard time on businesses.”
Under current health orders, most retail shops, bars and restaurants are permitted to serve customers in-house, though at reduced capacities and with other guidelines. But other businesses that were cleared to open under Gov. Steve Bullock’s guidelines remain closed in Missoula at the direction of the local health officer.
With no new cases of the virus reported in two weeks, Health Officer Ellen Leahy may issue new guidelines for certain businesses this week, allowing some that remain closed to open.
“Things have really changed in our community over the last week and a half,” said Farr. “At the end of this week, (Leahy) will be reassessing her health officer orders and looking at where we are now and making some changes to that.”
Farr said the governor may also move forward on additional reopenings this week, though nothing has been confirmed. Kier added that grant programs announced this week by the state could become available to Missoula businesses as early as Thursday morning.
As more businesses open, Kier urged consumers to follow the rules to ensure businesses remain open.
“We need people to cooperate and follow the guidance of our health department, to respect their opinions and judgments when they tell us it’s time to open, and to respect their opinions and judgments when they tell us it’s time to not,” Kier said. “I can’t convey strongly enough that we all take this really seriously. This is not the end of the virus, but a start of a chance to do business again.”