Screenshot from the Montana Public Affairs Network broadcast of Gov. Steve Bullock's announcement and press call on May 19, 2020. Credit: Montana Public Affairs Network

Montana will lift its 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travelers as the state transitions to phase two of the Reopening the Big Sky plan on June 1, Gov. Steve Bullock announced Tuesday.

Lifting the quarantine will coincide with a likely June 1 opening of Montana’s gates to Yellowstone National Park in West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City, Bullock said. Yellowstone’s Wyoming gates opened to travelers on Monday, May 18.

The lifting of the quarantine was not initially considered part of phase two, but Bullock said he decided to lift the quarantine because visitors are already coming to Montana, the state has seen lower-than-anticipated case loads, and plans including surveillance testing are in place to help detect outbreaks of COVID-19 in tourism communities like Gardiner and West Yellowstone. 

Under phase two, gathering may expand to 50 people, restaurants and bars can expand to 75% capacity, and gyms, pools and hot tubs can re-open. Bullock said the state is prepared to transition to phase two because of the limited number of active COVID-19 cases in Montana and enhanced contact tracing and testing capacity.

Since entering into phase one on April 26, the state has recorded 22 new cases of COVID-19, Bullock said. The state continues to have the lowest rate of hospitalizations and infections per capita in the U.S.

Bullock acknowledged that further opening of the state could lead to increased transmission of the coronavirus.

“Every time you lift a restriction, even going into phase one, you’re creating more possibility for further transmission of the disease,” Bullock said.

Vulnerable populations are encouraged to continue to stay home, and senior living facilities will still not allow visitors, Bullock said. He encouraged people to continue to wear face masks, wash their hands and disinfect frequently.

“If not for you, do it for others,” Bullock said.

Pandemic-related closures have allowed the state to become more prepared for COVID-19 by acquiring more personal protective equipment and test kits, Bullock said. About half of the cases recorded in Montana have been identified through contact tracing. The state has yet to experience a shortage of intensive care unit beds.

The state has continued to increase the number of tests conducted, with about 5,600 tests last week. Of those, about 3,500 were conducted at the state lab. Testing has increased in nursing homes, tribal areas and state correctional facilities, Bullock said.

For example, over the weekend, every person at the nursing home on the Crow Reservation was tested. All came back negative.

“We can continue to contain COVID-19 in Montana,” Bullock said.

Bullock credited the state’s success in containing COVID-19 so far to closing schools and restaurants and implementing a stay-at-home order earlier than many other states.

“While the virus remains contained in Montana at this time and new cases are relatively low, the virus is still with us and will be for the foreseeable future,” Bullock said. “We will likely continue to see Montanans test positive for COVID-19.”

The state’s reopening plan has three phases. Phase three is the closest to pre-pandemic normal, though it still advises enhanced hygiene protocols and adherence to Centers for Disease Control guidelines. The state transitioned from the stay-at-home directive to phase one on April 26. June 1 is about 5 weeks after April 26.

“That shouldn’t suggest five weeks from now we’re talking about going to phase three,” Bullock said.

Conversations are beginning about reopening Glacier National Park as well. Bullock said last week he expects the park to reopen no earlier than June 15.

Bullock said he knows tourists will come, and he hopes travelers and travel-oriented businesses will conform to public health guidelines to help keep Montanans safe.

“Tourism, even under phase two, isn’t getting back to normal, because we’re placing expectations on business and visitors alike,” Bullock said.

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.