HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock unveiled the state’s official plan Wednesday for gradually shifting Montana out of anti-coronavirus emergency mode, specifying dates for scaling back his stay-at-home directive and reopening some non-essential businesses that have been shuttered in an effort to slow the outbreak.
In making the announcement, Bullock touted the state’s anti-coronavirus efforts, saying aggressive government action, dogged public health work and individual Montanans’ commitment to social distancing have given the state the lowest per-capita COVID-19 case numbers in the nation.
“We have flattened the curve, and we’ve saved lives,” he said.
Much of the reopening plan mirrors the framework set out by President Donald Trump last week, outlining three phases of progressively scaled back anti-coronavirus measures.
The first phase of the Montana reopening will take effect in the coming days, relaxing the governor’s stay-at-home directive and letting churches, retail businesses, bars and schools resume operation under physical distancing requirements.
The state suggests senior citizens and people with health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 remain in their homes as much as possible. It also asks Montanans to minimize non-essential travel and refrain from gathering in groups larger than 10 in situations where it isn’t possible to maintain 6 feet of separation.
Bullock cautioned that relaxing anti-coronavirus directives means the state will likely see additional COVID-19 cases, and that a resurgence in new cases could force him to ratchet social distancing measures back up.
“There’s nobody at the state level at this point saying ‘Mission Accomplished,’” Bullock said.
Specific phase-one rollbacks set for the coming weeks include the following:
- The state’s individual state-at-home order, first enacted March 28, expires.
- Churches can reopen, subject to reduced capacity allowances, and provided they can maintain physical distance between family groups.
- Closed retail businesses can reopen with reduced capacity, provided they meet certain guidelines, including conducting health assessments on employees at the beginning of shifts and ensuring customers maintain six feet of separation.
- Restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos will be allowed to reopen at 50% of normal capacity, provided they meet certain requirements. Among those are cleaning tables, menus and gaming machines between each group of customers, limiting tables to six people, prohibiting customers from sitting at bar counters, and closing by 11:30 p.m.
- Schools can reopen at the discretion of local school boards. The state encourages frequent cleaning, limiting class sizes and conducting graduation ceremonies via live streams.
Montana’s phase-one measures do not lift a 14-day self-quarantine for people traveling into Montana for non-work purposes.
Gyms, swimming pools, theaters, bowling alleys and bingo halls will also remain closed. Most visitors will continue to be prohibited at retirement homes and assisted living facilities, which have been hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks in Montana and nationally.
At Wednesday’s press briefing, Bullock didn’t directly answer a question about why bars will be allowed to reopen before gyms, a situation that reverses the White House framework.
“We tried to look at the best ways to be most protective of public health but unleash our economy,” he said.
Bullock also said his administration will be monitoring data on the outbreak and consulting with local public health officials as it evaluates when to progress to second-phase reopening measures.
The second and third reopening phases will allow bars and restaurants to operate closer to full capacity, and increase allowable group size for gatherings.