Bullock tightens COVID restrictions as cases spike, hospitals hit staffing shortage

Gov. Steve Bullock announced that starting Friday, new restrictions would go into effect to try to limit community spread, including requiring all counties to enforce Montana’s mask mandate, regardless of their number of active COVID cases. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike and medical facilities are strained to their limit, Montana will add a few more restrictions to try to flatten the curve.

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that starting Friday, new restrictions would go into effect to try to limit community spread, including requiring all counties to enforce Montana’s mask mandate, regardless of their number of active COVID cases.

As of Tuesday, only two counties had fewer than four cases such that they didn’t have to require people to wear masks in public.

“Look at what’s happening in our communities,” Bullock said. “We talk about healthcare shortages, but we’re seeing impacts of shortages in some of our education communities. Great Falls schools went online for two weeks because of the number of educators that were out. We want to keep our businesses open. The best way to keep our businesses and communities open is to limit the community spread that we’re seeing.”

On Tuesday, the state response websites listed 1,500 new cases that were reported on Monday after a record 1,700 were reported on Thursday, and 543 Montanans have died of COVID. Missoula County reported another 59 cases, adding to its more than 2,000 active cases as community spread continues.

“As the months have worn on, we’ve been learning more about this virus,” Bullock said. “Recently, the CDC emphasized new studies that expanded its guidance showing that cloth face coverings also provide some protection for the wearer. It’s important that we universally wear masks in public places across our state and around others outside of our households. My mask protects you and your mask protects me.”

Up in Flathead County, where several businesses and local governments have scorned the mask mandate, the Kalispell hospital reported on Monday it is struggling because 70 of its staff are off the job due to either being infected or quarantined.

To stem that spread, new statewide restrictions that start Friday include limiting restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos to operating at a maximum of 50% capacity and closing no later than 10 p.m. Only six people can sit at a table and tables must be properly distanced.

Public gatherings, except schools or houses of worship, are limited to 25 people if social distancing cannot be maintained. But Bullock encouraged all Montanans to stay away from gatherings of more than 15 people, even in private social gatherings and especially during the holiday season.

“Such gatherings are a significant contributor to the spread of this virus,” Bullock said. “These are decisions that I don’t take lightly, but they are a necessity. We’re all sick of this virus. We all have to collectively recognize that this virus won’t stop spreading through our communities any time soon unless we take active steps to stop its spread.”

Bullock said two possible vaccines present hope, but it’s not likely that the general public will be able to take advantage of them until months from now.

In the meantime, the state will be distributing the remainder of the federal CARES Act money to small businesses and those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

A total of $75 million will be available through Business Stabilization Grants to businesses that have already been vetted and received money in the two previous rounds of funding. However, to qualify for this round, businesses will have to sign a statement that they will comply with state health mandates, such as requiring masks.

Another $25 million will go to Montanans who are unemployed or partially unemployed due to COVID-19. Starting the week of Nov. 29, they will receive supplemental unemployment payments of $200 for four weeks.

Additional money from the CARES Act will go to bringing 100 additional medical professionals from out of state within the next week to replace those who have to quarantine. Bullock said the state is contracting with an employment firm in the Northwest for the workers.

They may be needed even more as hospitals fill and hospital executives have to find new locations to put the sick. Rural hospitals could be in worse shape.

“As hospital capacity is stressed, there’s an increased possibility of needing to surge capacity into alternative care sites, and contracted medical staff would be needed to support the extra bed space,” Bullock said. “When more Montanans become infected with the virus, hospitalizations and deaths increase. Our healthcare systems eventually will not be able to sustain this rate particularly as we see resources become limited nationwide.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.