The Missoula City-County Health Department spent the better part of Wednesday afternoon poring over Gov. Steve Bullock’s plans to begin reopening the state’s economy in a phased approach.
In a press conference Wednesday, the governor said local health officials could supersede his plans if it’s in the best interested of the community. The City-County Health Department has not yet determined its course of action in light of Bullock’s announcement.
“We literally received the information after (the press),” said Cindy Farr, who’s leading the local pandemic response. “We didn’t get alerted to what he was going to be saying until after the press conference was over, so we’re still trying to go through the guidance and figure out what our needs are here in Missoula and what we can do to put together guidance for our business community.”
Under Bullock’s phased approach, the state’s stay-at-home order will expire Sunday, April 27, and churches can resume service if they choose. Main Street businesses and retail shops can reopen on Monday, April 28, under strict social distancing guidelines.
Bars, restaurants and casinos also can reopen on a limited basis starting May 4, with limits on occupancy and hours of operation. Schools will have the option of returning to classroom teaching on May 7.
Farr said the local health department has not yet decided whether to follow the state’s guidance.
“One of our main incident objectives for our incident management team is to protect our healthcare infrastructure and healthcare resources,” Farr said. “If we feel we need to put more strict guidance in place to protect our community and healthcare resources, we’d definitely do that before Sunday.”
The local health department closed various businesses long before the state took action, and health officials will decide over the coming days what steps they plan to take next.
Missoula County currently has 41 cases of COVID-19 and one death. Health officials believe the number of cases is actually higher.
“Up until last Tuesday, the only people being tested were high-risk individuals or working in a high-risk setting,” said Farr. “We don’t have a clear picture of how many cases we have in Missoula because of the lack of testing supplies.”
Bullock set no expiration for Phase 1, admitting that new cases will occur as the public begins to mix. This week, national health officials warned that COVID-19 could be back stronger and more deadly in the fall.
Farr agreed and said the current pandemic may only be starting in Missoula.
“Just because we’re moving forward with a phased, slow reopening doesn’t mean we’re on the other side of this outbreak,” she said. “We’re still in the beginning of this pandemic. We definitely expect that we’ll start seeing more cases.”
Bullock said schools would also have a choice to reopen on May 7, though that decision will be left to local school boards. If they do choose to reopen, they will be required to make adjustments and have plans in place for certain students, including those who choose to continue remote learning.
Missoula County Public Schools has not revealed its plan of action.
“We are working with the school superintendent to make sure they are very specific guidelines in place if they think they’re going to reopen before the end of the school year,” said Farr. “It will be a partnership between public health and the schools to make that determination.”