Credit: Courtesy photo

HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock Thursday upgraded his existing social distancing orders amid the global coronavirus pandemic to a full-fledged shelter-in-place order for Montanans, urging people within the state’s borders to stay at home “to the maximum extent possible.”

The emergency directive, which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning, March 28, is enforceable as a public health order via action by the state attorney general, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, and local authorities under the direction of county attorneys. Essential activities such as grocery shopping and essential businesses are exempt.

“In other states, hospitals are overwhelmed and health care workers are getting sick themselves,” Bullock said at a Thursday afternoon press conference. “I don’t want that to become Montana. It’s critical that we do everything we can to cut off the chain of transmission.”

Like prior emergency orders by the governor that closed Montana’s schools and shuttered dine-in bars and restaurants, the stay-at-home directive has a termination date of April 10. Those orders could be extended, depending on how the public health situation changes in the coming weeks.

As of Friday morning, Montana had 108 reported cases of COVID-19, 39 of them in Gallatin County. Seven people have been hospitalized with the disease. The state reported its first death from the disease Thursday evening. The Washington Post reported Thursday that the national death toll had likely exceeded 1,000.

The governor’s directive orders Montanans to stay in their homes except for “essential activities,” and prohibits “non-essential social and recreational gatherings” regardless of size, unless individuals can maintain six feet of social distance. The order includes an exception for people who are unsafe in their residences, such as victims of domestic violence.

Essential activities exempted from the stay-at-home order are:

  • Health activities, such as seeking emergency services, obtaining medical supplies and visiting health care providers.
  • Obtaining necessary supplies, including groceries, household consumer products and items necessary to work from home.
  • Outdoor activity where participants can maintain 6 feet of space between them, though the order discourages Montanans from activities with a risk of injury that could require emergency medical attention.
  • Caring for family members, friends or pets, for example by providing them with transportation.
  • Some work, either at essential businesses or in the form of “minimum necessary activities” to maintain inventory, property or payroll at other businesses.

Essential businesses exempted in the order include: Health care providers, grocery stores, food and beverage producers, social service organizations, media, gas stations, mechanics, banks, real estate services, hardware stores, construction trades, delivery services, laundry services, delivery restaurants, business supply sellers, taxi services, manufacturing, critical labor union functions, hotels, funeral services, and professional services such as law, accounting and information technology.

Businesses that remain in operation are required to employ social distancing measures such as making hand sanitizer readily available and designating how employees and customers can maintain the recommended six feet of social distancing with signs or tape.

In announcing the order, Bullock acknowledged the economic hardship created by state and national shutdowns in an effort to stem the pandemic. He noted that the state has received 21,000 unemployment claims since March 16.

“In order to have a healthy economy, we need to have a healthy population,” he said.

Bullock said his hope is that compliance with the stay-at-home order will be largely voluntary, but noted it can be enforced by state and local officials if necessary.

“It shouldn’t take a sheriff to say ‘let’s use some common sense here,’ but it does have some enforcement authority in it,” he said.

This story was updated after initial publication to note the state had reported its first COVID-19 death and to update the latest number of cases.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.