Bullock: Science, testing and virus spread will determine when economy reopens

The Sinclair dinosaur at 39th and Russell streets in Missoula practices social distancing and safety. Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday said it remains unknown when he’ll reopen the state’s economy. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday said Montana’s stay-at-home directive will remain in place until April 24 while science, testing and other factors will dictate what steps the state will take to reopen its economy, and when.

The three West Coast states on Monday said they’d work as a block and collaborate when reopening their economy. The governors of California, Oregon and Washington said “science, not politics” will guide that decision.

Bullock offered a similar take on Tuesday.

“I think we look at the number of tests occurring, the number of positives along the way, and where are we trending – you survey the overall healthcare community,” Bullock said. “Do we have what we need? Do we have boots on the ground for the contact tracing that could well be necessary along the way as you start to reopen? Those are just some of the factors that will come into play.”

Local heath departments in several of Montana’s urban counties took aggressive steps back in March to slow the spread of COVID-19 by closing certain businesses. The state followed suit several days later, and Bullock issued his stay-at-home directive on March 26.

At the time, the number of positive cases in Montana was listed at 90. On Tuesday, the number of cases topped 400, including seven reported deaths – far fewer than similarly rural states.

“Montana is a state of 147,000 square miles and the actions we’ve taken in Montana to slow the spread are at times even different than some of our neighboring states,” Bullock said. “It’s gradual and dynamic because literally, ever day, things can change.”

Bullock said he has had conversations with governors from surrounding states, though the last group call was a week ago. He said Montana will look at what’s right for its population and economy when the time is right to reopen.

“When looking at the factors of what we can do as we look to reopen, Montana has taken what I think are important and significant steps to slow the spread, so we’d certainly be informed by what other states are doing, but working as we always do from those home-grown, evidence-based solutions,” he said.

Bullock said he would consider the stay-at-home order and future steps as April 24 draws near. He said it would be irresponsible to pick a “magical date” to reopen the state.

“I’ve been doing a two week by two week because it’s a rapidly changing and dynamic time,” he said. “We have to see what steps we’re aggressively taking, how the virus is responding, and what steps we can take to start reopening. There’s not going to be in a month or two weeks where COVID magically goes away.”