Gov. Steve Bullock introduces new public health directives during a press conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Credit: Screenshot of livestream provided by Montana Public Affairs Network

HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock has announced new public health orders, including limits on gathering sizes and restaurant and bar operations, in response to a continued surge of new COVID-19 infections in Montana. 

Restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos in the state will be limited to operating at 50% capacity and must close by 10 p.m., Bullock said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. Table seating will be limited to six people, reduced from the current limit of 10, and establishments are still required to maintain social distancing.

In addition, Bullock said, public gatherings where social distancing isn’t possible or practiced will be limited to 25 people. 

The state’s mask mandate, enacted in July, will now apply to all 56 Montana counties, regardless of the number of active cases in a county. Under the original order, any county with at least four active cases was subject to the order. Only two counties, Meagher and Treasure, reported fewer than four active cases as of Tuesday. 

The new orders don’t apply to places of worship, which continue to have gathering limits of 50 or fewer if social distancing is practiced, and schools, according to a statement released by Bullock’s office shortly after the press conference. 

The new orders take effect on Friday, Nov. 20. Bullock said there was no set date to repeal the new orders or any set metrics that would trigger the orders’ expiration.   

“We must find a way to make it through these coming winter months. We need all Montanans to recognize that there is widespread community transmission, and your risk of becoming infected with the virus increases the more you engage in gatherings of any kind,” Bullock’s statement said. “We all have to collectively recognize that this virus won’t stop spreading through our communities on its own. If we come together and follow the restrictions, we can curb some of the spread we are seeing.”

“We want to keep our businesses open. And the best way to keep our businesses and our communities open are to further limit community spread that we’re seeing.”

Gov. Steve Bullock

On Tuesday, the state reported 1,500 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections since March to about 49,400, with 543 deaths attributed to the illness, according to state data.  

Bullock said he’s encouraged by recent developments in vaccine development, but that widespread vaccine availability in Montana is still a distant prospect. 

The continued rise in new cases, he said, coupled with stresses on the state’s health care system — including shortages of workers and hospital beds — prompted the new actions, which follow recent weeks in which Bullock has been reluctant to implement additional public health orders

“These are decisions that I don’t take lightly, yet they are a necessity,” he said, adding that he recognizes that most Montanans are sick of living with the virus. “We want to keep our businesses open. And the best way to keep our businesses and our communities open are to further limit community spread that we’re seeing.”

Bullock also said that businesses could be compensated for the likely loss of revenue due to the new directives. He said the state would make an additional $75 million in federal coronavirus relief funding available as grants to businesses that have already received stabilization money from the state. Any business accepting the additional money would have to agree to enforce and follow all public health mandates, he said. 

Montanans unemployed or partially unemployed due to business disruptions caused by the pandemic will also be eligible for an extra $200 weekly in unemployment benefits for four weeks starting Nov. 28. The new allocations mean the state has spent or allocated most of the $1.25 billion in relief funds given to the state by the federal government, Bullock said, adding that Congress should pass additional legislation to provide more relief money to states and others affected by the pandemic. 

“We know the needs of Montana business families — the needs that they have are greater than what we can give them with the remaining state coronavirus relief funds. And the needs will be even greater next year,” he said. “We need all partners to be engaged, especially at the federal level.”

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.