Bullock sets phased reopening; warns of potential increase in cases as restrictions ease

Gov. Steve Bullock details his plans for a phased reopening of Montana during a press call on Tuesday. The state’s stay-at-home order will expire this Sunday, and certain businesses will be permitted to open over the coming days and weeks.

Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday unveiled his plans for a phased reopening of Montana, saying future actions will be based on trends in public health and the ability of hospitals to provide care.

Under the phased approach, the state’s stay-at-home order will expire on April 27 and churches can resume service if they choose. Main Street businesses and retail shops can reopen on April 28 under strict social distancing guidelines.

Bars, restaurants and casinos also can reopen on a limited basis starting on May 4, and all schools will have the option of returning to classroom teaching on May 7.

All the decisions in his plan could be superseded by local health officials, he added.

“Once we begin to reopen, we want to be able to stay open,” Bullock said. “We have flattened the curve and now as we move forward, we need to make sure we keep the virus as contained as best as possible. As we open up things, there may well likely be an increase in cases.”

Under Phase 1, gatherings will continue to be restricted to 10 people or less and nonessential travel should be minimal. Common areas will remain closed but Montana’s stay-at-home order will sunset.

Main Street businesses and retail shops that do choose to reopen next week will be expected to follow social distancing guidelines. Bullock said the virus is still lurking in the population and the public should practice caution, including wearing face coverings.

“Main Street business and retail shops can reopen, but that doesn’t mean things should be just like they were before the virus,” Bullock said. “Retail stores must have capacity and set out limitations on physical distancing.”

Bullock will also lift the closure of restaurants, bars and casinos on May 4 when they’re permitted to reopen. But that comes with certain limitations, including reduced capacities and a mandatory 11:30 p.m. closure.

“Our new normal is going to look different,” Bullock said. “This virus isn’t gone from Montana.”

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.

Graduation ceremonies that meet social distancing guidelines would be permitted to take place, Bullock’s order states. He praised teachers for the adjustments they’ve made over the past month.

“Schools, like every other large assembly in Montana, really do hold the potential for spreading the virus,” he said. “Yet we need to be thinking about ways to minimize the risk of transmission while serving our children. COVID-19 will be with us not just for the next several months, but we may well be facing these same issues next fall when school starts.”

Under Phase 1 of the governor’s plan, senior living centers will continue prohibiting outside visitors, and vulnerable individuals are encouraged to stay home. Businesses also are encouraged to permit telework when possible.

“They need to incorporate social distancing protocols, such as closing common areas in the workplace,” Bullock said. “Businesses need to make special accommodations for workers in the vulnerable populations.”

The state’s travel ban will remain in effect for the time being. Bullock said that restriction will continue to be measured over the coming weeks. He said the state worked hard to flatten the curve, and future decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis and informed by public health officials.

“We need to see how this first phase works, along with our continuing efforts to slow the spread of this virus,” Bullock said. “Local health departments and tribal governments may well impose or continue restrictions greater than what I set forth at the state level. I’d ask you respect those local decisions.”

Bullock set no expiration for Phase 1, admitting that new cases will occur as the public begins to mix. This week, national health officials have warned that COVID-19 could be back stronger and more deadly in the fall.

“As we turn to support our Main Street businesses and get more families back to work during this time, as we should, we must also be sure to look out for those around us,” the governor urged. “The first phase and every phase is designed in consultation with state and local public health. I’m not putting an expiration date on Phase 1.”

Bullock acknowledged the impacts the pandemic has had on the state’s economy, including the individuals it has rendered unemployed. He also admitted frustrations over the lack of federal support, including testing.

But over the coming weeks, Bullock said the state will continue to increase its testing efforts and will continue contact tracing.

“As we enter Phase 1, this isn’t the time for political posturing. We’re not in the clear yet,” he said. “We’re still relying on support from the federal government to get through this.”

Starting this week, Bullock said the state lab will have another testing tool to “significantly increase testing capacity,” almost doubling it. Additional supply orders are pending outside the traditional supply chains, he added.