The latest numbers
As of Wednesday, May 5, the state reports that 729,328 doses of vaccine have been administered in Montana, and 337,159 Montanans have been fully immunized. The state has reported a cumulative total of 109,455 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 139 new cases since yesterday, 1,069 active cases, and 106,808 people considered recovered. State officials also report that 5,049 of the cases have resulted in hospitalizations, with 66 patients currently hospitalized. There have been 1,578 Montana deaths attributed to the disease. The state’s official dashboard is here, and more information on the numbers reported by the state is here.
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Montana to enter phase two of reopening
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.
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.
Bozeman man ticketed, turned away from Cooke City
A Bozeman man was ticketed Friday for traveling through the northern gate at Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner in an attempt to reach Cooke City.
Tyler Vance was charged with a misdemeanor for violating a “health and safety closure order.” The ticket is time-stamped 7:37 p.m. Vance posted several videos of the interaction on Friday, including one that shows him driving through the northern gate, a 14-minute Facebook Live video that shows him being pulled over and handcuffed by Yellowstone park rangers, and a video that shows him driving home after the interaction.
State ramps up COVID-19 testing in correctional facilities
Criminal justice advocates continue to urge expedited release.
Hundreds more people in Montana’s prisons and correctional facilities will have access to coronavirus testing starting today, a significant increase from the total of 31 inmates and offenders that have received a test so far.
The state Department of Corrections said this week that 772 tests per month will be available for inmates and staff who are asymptomatic. That’s in addition to diagnostic testing for anyone exhibiting symptoms, according to spokeswoman Carolynn Bright, which is the policy DOC said it has so far followed in accordance with CDC guidelines.
To date, three DOC and contract staff have tested positive for COVID-19, in addition to two people at the Gallatin County Detention Center.
How Montana’s 2020 census became “an uphill climb while it’s hailing basketballs.”
Since February, Tylyn Newcomb has been losing sleep over a seemingly herculean task: how to ensure the government counts as many Montana residents as possible for the 2020 census, and, in doing so, generate fair federal funding and electoral representation for the next decade.
“I mean, it’s vital work,” said Newcomb, one of the lead staffers focused on census outreach and grant funding for the Montana Nonprofit Association. “And so we don’t have the option to just give up and say it’s too hard, there’s too many barriers.”
For Newcomb and other nonprofit and state employees, preparing for an accurate federal census count in Montana has been equivalent to training for a grueling race. The hurdles include many of the state’s quintessential characteristics: a substantial rural population spread out over a vast geographic area, a widespread lack of city-style mailing addresses, and the frustration of unreliable internet access. All of those factors were present before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted basic civic and government services nationwide.
“Now, I feel like we are facing an uphill climb while it’s hailing basketballs,” Newcomb said. “There’s all these additional barriers because of [COVID-19]. And I worry that we’re not going to get the additional support we need to overcome them.”
With livestock prices falling and food banks in need, ag producers find new ways to share
For $.28 a pound, Shorty Hofer doesn’t want to sell his hogs, but in a farrow-to-finish operation where new litters of piglets are born every week, you run out of room in your barn.
“We farrow every week,” said Hofer, a hog farmer and business manager of the Hutterite Midway Colony near Conrad. “We keep farrowing, so we’ve got to keep them moving. They’ve got to go somewhere every week.”
Hofer decided to do something different with his most recent load of finished hogs. Rather than sell all of them at a loss, Hofer made a deal with Independent Meat Company, his regular processor in Twin Falls, Idaho. If Independent Meat would slaughter 10 hogs without charge, the processor could keep the prime cuts for resale, and Hofer would take the equivalent weight in hot dogs and ground pork. Hofer then would donate the 800 pounds of pork to local food banks.
Yellowstone National Park’s Wyoming entrances to open next week
Yellowstone National Park will open its Wyoming entrances on Monday, May 18, at noon, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly announced today.
The park will be limited to day-use only via the Cody and Jackson entrances. Only the park’s lower loop — which includes Lake, Canyon, Norris, Old Faithful, West Thumb, and Grant Village — will be open. No commercial tour buses will be allowed to enter the park. The opening comes at the request of Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, Sholly said.
Montana’s gates to Yellowstone National Park will not open before June 1, Gov. Steve Bullock said during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon.
Montana OKs mail-in ballot initiative signatures
The Montana Secretary of State’s Office expanded the ability of ballot groups to collect signatures during the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday with an order declaring that citizens may download petition materials, sign them, and mail them from home.
The order is the result of a request for a declaratory ruling from the secretary of state filed on April 9 by the ballot group MTCares, whose proposed I-187 Montana Renewable Energy Policy initiative would direct the state to transition to 50% renewable energy by 2027 and 80% by 2034.
Spring Creek mine still operating on temporary permit after layoffs
When the Navajo Transitional Energy Company acquired three Powder River Basin coal mines in October, industry analysts warned the purchase was a “risky bet” with lots of downside due to projected declines in the coal industry.
About six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified those risks. Last month, NTEC laid off 130 workers, including 73 at the Spring Creek mine — a quarter of the workforce at Montana’s largest coal mine.
“The market has declined even more quickly than expected,” said Robert Godby, an economics professor at the University of Wyoming.
How ‘Dr. Annie’ is dividing the Flathead
Even as Montana begins a gradual easing of stay-at-home restrictions intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the political schism it highlighted is creating reverberations in the northwestern corner of the state.
A Flathead County health board member who led a movement to disparage the protective safety orders and downplay the virus is now the subject of two competing petitions — one to expel her from office and another to keep her.
MT Lowdown podcast: Unpacking the polling on Bullock vs. Daines
There are two big takeaways from a poll released this week by Montana State University: Montanans are definitely concerned about economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Steve Daines looks to be very much in play now that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has been able to capitalize on a statewide pandemic response that has, thus far, yielded relatively favorable results.
Bullock details $123 million in COVID-19 relief
Gov. Steve Bullock today announced a first round of COVID-19 relief programs funded by Montana’s $1.25 billion in coronavirus aid from the federal government. Between them, the nine first-round programs will provide grant opportunities to small businesses, nonprofits, social service agencies and individual Montanans who need help with housing costs.
At this point, $123 million is allocated to the first-round programs, though Bullock said the state plans to assess demand and replenish them accordingly. Applications for the assistance will open Thursday, May 7, through a state website at covidrelief.mt.gov.
Pandemic prices could shutter Montana ranches
Some Montana ranchers will likely go out of business due to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Livestock told state legislators last week.
Montana cattle producers are facing enormous uncertainty after restaurant closures and COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants across the country caused severe disruptions in the meat supply chain and reduced demand for cattle. Cattle prices have dropped about 30% since January.
“Potentially, we will see some attrition in the number of producers, as some producers may not be able to make it through the term” said Mike Honeycutt, executive officer of the Montana Department of Livestock, during an interim Economic Affairs Committee meeting on Thursday, April 30.
Poll: Bullock leads Daines in Senate race
Asked about Bullock’s job performance handling the pandemic response, 70% of those surveyed said they approve or strongly approve of his performance. Approval of Daines’ job performance during the coronavirus response was 48%.
Coronavirus survey highlights strong concern for health of others and economy
A new survey released today by researchers at Montana State University and the University of Colorado sheds light on how citizens in Montana and other western states view the response to and impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The results indicate that Montanans appear far more worried about friends or family contracting COVID-19 than about catching the disease themselves, that their concerns about economic hardship outweigh their fears of over-taxed local health care systems, and that they’re hungrier for information about the coronavirus from health experts than from political, business and religious leaders.
Task force recommends targets for $1.25 billion coronavirus stimulus, skirting open meetings law
An advisory council appointed to help Gov. Steve Bullock decide how to spend $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief money from the federal government submitted its formal recommendations Friday, laying out a framework focused on providing additional support to pandemic-disrupted businesses and nonprofits.
The $1.25 billion appropriation equates to $1,169 for each Montana resident, and is 39 times the size of the Montana Department of Commerce’s $32 million annual budget.
The intensive, two-week process the advisory council employed to develop its recommendations while holding virtual meetings that were inaccessible to the press and public likely violated Montana’s open meetings law, according to the state’s preeminent freedom of information attorney.
As COVID-19 creates addiction challenges, providers find new ways to connect
Mary Windecker, executive director of the Montana Behavioral Health Alliance, said COVID-19 has created a “perfect, horrible storm” exacerbating behavioral health issues, including chemical dependency.
“Many of the people who were in substance use treatment at the start of this left — they just went home, they quit going to treatment … and many of them fell off the wagon,” she said. “There’s going to be this huge wave of people coming out of this crisis that are going to require behavioral health services.”
Meeting that need will be difficult, she said, because many behavioral health providers quickly depleted their meager cash reserves during COVID-19-related closures and have had to cut payrolls, part of a larger trend of layoffs in the health care industry. The behavioral health system was already in poor financial shape due to 2017 budget cuts, Windecker said, and the pandemic has further destabilized budgets.
Many of the providers that are still seeing patients have shifted to a telehealth model to deliver services remotely, but not without reservations.
Court denies marijuana group’s request for electronic ballot signature collection
Missoula District Judge John Larson said in his ruling that plaintiff New Approach Montana, which is trying to place an initiative legalizing adult-use marijuana on the 2020 ballot, failed to show that its constitutional rights were infringed, and that election integrity outweighs extant law’s burden on those rights.
Penned up by the pandemic, Montanans try to get well by getting out
The coronavirus is underscoring a point many wildland advocates, government officials and health care professionals have touted for years: Outdoor recreation, indeed nature itself, is critical to mental health.
But with so many Montanans flocking to trails and fishing access sites, concern about those areas becoming sites for the transmission of COVID-19 has become top-of-mind for local health officials and land advocates alike. Municipalities across the state have closed playgrounds in the name of public health, and Missoula County Incident Commander Cindy Farr said the potential for large crowds congregating at trailheads has spurred public messaging on the importance of maintaining social distancing. It’s the same approach Rachel Schmidt, director of the Montana Office of Outdoor Recreation, has taken statewide.
“We’ve tried to communicate very specifically, ‘Hey, we have this opportunity, but we only have this opportunity if we do it safely,’” Schmidt said. “Because right now, first and foremost, we’re facing a public health crisis, and most important is the health and safety of everybody.”
State plans to ramp up COVID-19 testing
Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday he plans to scale up Montana’s COVID-19 testing program to administer 60,000 tests a month as the state begins to scale back social distancing directives implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
That expansion, Bullock said, will help ensure every Montanan with COVID-19 symptoms can receive a test for the disease, and will enable the state to conduct additional testing in nursing homes and tribal communities where people are at particular risk from the disease.
“This is a long-term goal that we’ll be ramping up to get to,” Bullock said, acknowledging that testing efforts are still subject to supply constraints on nasal swabs and other necessary materials. His office said the state hopes to meet the goal “over the next several months.”
Montana crops get COVID bump, questions
The coronavirus has thrown a wrench into the market for most U.S. farmers, raising questions about how crops will be transported, how those crops will be used, and whether international trade will remain viable. For example, surplus vegetables stranded by the shutdown of commercial customers are rotting in fields in Florida. Corn, often used for biofuels and animal feed, has dropped about 15% in price as Americans drive less and fewer cattle are being put on feedlots. China is importing fewer soybeans during the pandemic.
But most of Montana’s major commodity crops haven’t seen a significant drop in prices, said Anton Bekkerman, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University.
That’s because Montana’s farmers generally grow food that is consumed by humans, he said.
With beef backlogged and the market in flux, Montana cattle ranchers face tough choices
One month into nationwide stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19, the beef supply chain has been disrupted in the middle, with many of the nation’s largest packing plants shutting down due to COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities. That means fewer cattle are being slaughtered, which means fewer are being taken off feedlots, which means fewer are being purchased from Montana ranchers. On Friday, April 24, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 23% fewer cattle were put on feed in March 2020 than in March 2019.
Regardless, ranchers still have the same amount of cattle. And in what was anticipated to be a record year for beef producers, prices are now down about 30% since the beginning of the year.
Food banks adapt to surging demand and shifting supply chains
Brent Weisgram was too swamped to do a phone interview.
As chief operations officer, he oversees food purchasing and distribution for the Montana Food Bank Network, headquartered in Missoula, and his troubles can be summed up in a few figures, which he sent in an email.
MFBN has shipped 1.6 million meals to Montana food pantries in the last month ― half a million more than during the same period last year. And as need has surged, so has the price of certain staples. A case of peanut butter, for example, currently costs about 45% more than usual.
The numbers illustrate how the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed tens of thousands of Montanans out of work and sent shudders through commercial and retail supply chains, has hit food banks from both sides.
Top Republicans oppose electronic signature collection for marijuana ballot measure
Montana’s secretary of state and attorney general oppose electronic collection of signatures for citizens’ initiatives attempting to qualify for the November ballot, according to an April 21 joint response by the offices to a lawsuit filed by a group trying to put legalization of adult-use marijuana before voters.
Coronavirus and college admissions: test score suspensions and virtual prospecting
New test-score-optional admission policies are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the novel coronavirus has impacted the college admissions process in Montana. Cathy Cole, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Montana, said the current public health crisis emerged at a critical time for university recruitment. Typically spring is when UM is busy both securing commitments from high school seniors and attempting to woo high school juniors by introducing them to the campus, faculty and outdoor programs.
“This is an incredibly important time for us,” Cole said, “and to have COVID hit right about in the middle of both of those, it was pretty significant for us.”
As Montana prepares to reopen, state lacks local COVID-19 testing data
As Gov. Steve Bullock moves to roll back emergency measures enacted to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, he has said he’ll take a data-driven approach to reopening Montana’s economy.
State officials are keeping a close eye on the number of laboratory-confirmed cases. However, they aren’t tracking the number of Montanans who’ve been tested in each county, a metric national experts say is important to fully understand how the outbreak is playing out in different parts of the state.
In an effort to assess what information is available on local COVID-19 testing in Montana, journalists with Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Lee Newspapers teamed up to ask the local health officials serving each of Montana’s 56 counties how many of their residents had been tested for COVID-19 as of April 8.
After two weeks of follow-up calls and emails, we heard back from 53 counties. The responses indicate there has been wide variation in how many COVID-19 tests have been conducted in different parts of Montana, from upwards of 1,000 tests in some urban counties to fewer than 10 — or none at all — in some rural counties.
Montana tourism offers a rain check, surveys the damage, and looks to brighter days
Even as Gov. Steve Bullock announced April 22 that Montana will begin a phased reopening of its economy, uncertainty remains in the tourism industry, one of the state’s largest economic sectors. And at least one Montana tourism agency is actively discouraging visitation.
Bullock details plan for phased reopening of Montana schools and businesses
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.
Even so, he said, “There’s nobody at the state level at this point saying ‘Mission Accomplished.’”
Journalist Emily Stifler Wolfe on contact tracing and the public health tightrope between prevention and privacy
On April 17, Montana Free Press published Wolfe’s story “How contact tracing slows the spread — and why getting Montana back to work requires more of it.” Wolfe is our guest on this week’s Montana Lowdown podcast, where she talks about what she learned while reporting the piece with host and Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams.
Montanans rally at Capitol to air grievances and advocate lifting of coronavirus restrictions
More than three hundred Montana citizens and multiple Republican candidates for statewide office gathered at the state Capitol in Helena on Sunday, flaunting federal, state, and public health agency social distancing recommendations to express a range of opinions centered on the belief that it’s time for state directives closing schools and businesses to end.
Similar protests in recent days have occurred in Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah, Indiana, Texas, and other states.
The rally, organized on Facebook, began around 1 p.m. and featured no speakers or public pronouncements. It was an opportunity, rather, for a quiet if vibrant public demonstration of pushback against directives issued by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Bullock says post-COVID reopening plan is coming
Gov. Steve Bullock said at a Friday, April 17, press briefing that his administration is in the process of developing a plan for scaling back anti-coronavirus social distancing measures as the number of new coronavirus cases declines.
“By next week we’ll have a deliberate plan for reopening,” he said.
How contact tracing slows the spread — and why getting Montana back to work requires more of it
On April 16, the White House released guidelines for “Opening Up America Again.” But national public health officials say before the stay-at-home orders in place across much of the country can be lifted, a robust system for contact tracing will need to be in place to allow for effective intervention if case numbers begin to rise again. Some experts estimate that will require between 100,000 and 300,000 people doing the investigations nationwide.
Right now in Montana, social distancing efforts have been effective, Murphy said, and the state needs to be prepared for an inevitable spike in cases when the state’s stay-at-home order is lifted. That means having capacity for rigorous contact tracing, plus expanded supplies of test kits and medical protective equipment.
“Before you can say, ‘Oh yeah, let’s turn all those measures off, let’s go back to normal,’ you would want to make sure you have all those resources in the cabinets, ready to go, in case that backfires.”
Otherwise, Murphy said, the state will “go right back to closing everything down again.”
As ‘essential’ construction continued, COVID-19 broke out in Big Sky
Six workers at the $400 million Montage Big Sky luxury resort construction site at the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club tested positive last month, the Gallatin City-County Health Department announced Monday.
Marijuana initiative group sues state to collect electronic signatures during pandemic
A group trying to legalize adult-use marijuana on Montana’s 2020 ballot is suing Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton over the state’s ban on electronic signature gathering due to the difficulty and danger of collecting in-person signatures during the coronavirus pandemic.
New Approach Montana filed its lawsuit in state court April 6, and is asking the court for an exemption to laws requiring that signatures to qualify ballot initiatives be gathered in-person, and to delay the deadline to submit signatures from June 19 to Aug. 3.
State Supreme Court denies Disability Rights Montana lawsuit
In a unanimous opinion issued Tuesday, April 14, the Montana Supreme Court denied a disability rights organization’s petition to provide oversight of all the state’s correctional facilities in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana filed the lawsuit April 1 on behalf of Disability Rights Montana asking the high court to compel prisons and jails to mitigate the effects of the highly contagious illness.
GOP leadership critiques Bullock’s coronavirus response and asks for plan to restart economy
As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended Montana in recent weeks, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has drawn little criticism from elected leaders in either party as he instituted a series of increasingly sweeping public health measures designed to slow the outbreak by closing down many businesses and directing Montanans to shelter in their homes.
That changed Tuesday, as the elected leadership of the Montana Legislature’s Republican majority published a public letter calling on the governor to “rethink” his COVID-19 response and “implement more strategic measures in an effort to re-engage our economy once again.”
MT Lowdown podcast: Quarantine stress hits home for Montanans
As Montana enters its fifth consecutive week of quarantine, many households are feeling the strain of isolation, fear and anxiety. Professionals are warning about increased incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault, while even safe households are experiencing unique stresses related to parenting.
In response to these concerns, Montana Free Press is publishing this episode of the weekly Montana Lowdown podcast focused on resources for victims of domestic and sexual violence, as well as parenting tips from childcare experts.
As Kalispell Regional Healthcare furloughs 600, industry sheds thousands of jobs statewide
Last month, 3,345 workers in the health care and social assistance industries filed new unemployment claims with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, which represents 5% of the industry’s total statewide workforce and a 1,157% increase over the number of industry claims filed in March 2019.
Such a staggering workforce reduction is having a profound impact in Montana, where a approximately 20% of the state’s total personal income and 17% of its employment are sourced to the health care industry.
Realtors, renters and landlords adjust to an uncomfortable new normal
A week after Gov. Steve Bullock issued a stay-at-home order designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Montana Association of Realtors got on a conference call with the organization’s leaders across the state. Realtors wanted to know how to help people move when movement is restricted.
While similar orders in California and New York have designated real estate activity as nonessential, and thus subject to stay-at-home directives, Montana’s order defines real estate as “essential” and, as such, unrestricted.
Predictably, questions about how to conduct business during a pandemic have multiplied. What are best practices for keeping clients and colleagues safe? What does the new, if temporary, normal mean for the market? And how do renters — particularly those living in homes that are up for sale — fit into the picture?
Who — and why — Montana tests for COVID-19
Jim Murphy, Montana’s chief epidemiologist, has heard the same stories most everyone in the state has heard about residents who’ve made unsuccessful attempts to get themselves tested for COVID-19. But even as national headlines worry over testing backlogs in some parts of the country, he says testing constraints haven’t hampered Montana’s coronavirus response.
“I’m not aware of what I would consider valid access issues,” Murphy said in an April 7 interview. “I think the providers in Montana are testing the right people.”
That distinction — targeting sometimes-scarce test kits for the “right people,” as opposed to attempting blanket sampling — is key to understanding the strategy state officials say they’re employing to fight the pandemic in Montana.
COVID-19 case confirmed at Bozeman jail as attorney general responds to prisoner-release lawsuit
Despite early measures to protect inmates from contracting the novel coronavirus, the Gallatin County Detention Center confirmed a case of COVID-19 this week. It was initially reported by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox in a notice to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 7, correcting his previous day’s response to a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Montana.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said in a telephone interview Tuesday that although the man was asymptomatic, within hours of his intake he was placed in one of the jail’s two negative-pressure cells designed to prevent air and infectious particles from leaving the room. Staff learned during the intake screening process that he’d been exposed to COVID-19 before being arrested. Jailers, coordinating with the courts and county health department, released the inmate to be quarantined sometime after his test returned positive on Saturday. Citing confidentiality concerns, Gootkin did not disclose the man’s name, age or arrest details.
Former Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus on economic stimuli, then and now
Former U.S. Senator Max Baucus says he’s concerned that today’s virus-triggered economic crisis is a much greater threat to the global economy than the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.
Governor extends stay-at-home order
Gov. Steve Bullock officially issued a two-week extension to anti-coronavirus emergency measures closing schools, shuttering dine-in restaurants and asking Montanans to stay in their homes as much as possible.
The restrictions, which had been set to expire April 10, will now stay in effect through at least April 24.
Also covered by the extension are gubernatorial orders limiting evictions and foreclosures, as well as a 14-day self-quarantine period required for people arriving in Montana for non-work-related travel.
“We know that staying home will help to flatten the curve. For every person we take out of the chain of transmission of this virus, the more likely our health care facilities can handle the capacity to respond, and the more likely we can beat back this virus sooner rather than later,” Bullock said in a statement.
Coronavirus and the end of the road: Cooke City
In a town of about 80 year-round residents, it’s easy to know everyone’s name, or at least recognize their face.
During a pandemic, that can be helpful. The attendant at the Exxon next to the Soda Butte Lodge looks out the window all day. If he recognizes you, he’ll crack the glass door open, ask you what you need, and go grab it off the shelf. If not, he’ll wave you away and tell you “no.”
“This door is locked,” a sign reads. The sign explains that while the town normally welcomes visitors, residents don’t want any right now.
For rural hospitals facing COVID-19, crimped cash flow and staffing challenges
The threat posed by COVID-19 — even in parts of Montana where no case has been confirmed — is destabilizing the financial footing of rural hospitals and undercutting the economic base of the communities that rely on them.
Mountainview Medical Center, a 25-bed facility in central Montana’s Meagher County, is no exception.
Bullock OKs Keystone XL construction despite coronavirus threat
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is allowing Canadian pipeline company TC Energy to begin construction this month of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in Montana, categorizing the pipeline as an “essential” project exempt from his statewide stay-at-home directive, despite the acknowledged threat that hundreds of out-of-state pipeline workers pose to state efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
County officials enforcing stay-at-home directive report widespread compliance
County attorneys in Yellowstone, Flathead, Gallatin and Cascade counties all reported that they were for the most part prepared for the statewide directive, and that they’ve been in regular communication with counterparts across Montana to discuss how other counties are dealing with the situation. With the exception of a few scattered complaints, all said the majority of citizens and businesses are complying with the various directives, orders and rules that have come down from different agencies. As of April 3, none had taken legal or civil enforcement actions.
“We’ve had really good luck. We haven’t had any huge issues,” said Cascade County Attorney Joshua Racki. “And when we have had something that could be a potential violation, we’ve sent someone over for education and they’ve always voluntarily complied.”
Coronavirus report: Lewistown
Lewistown is a hub location for many smaller, outlying communities, and the town’s response to the coronavirus is turning, like the weather.
At-risk youth among most vulnerable to school closures
With schools across Montana transitioned to online learning and state child protection specialists moving home visits online, child advocates are raising concerns about the health and safety of at-risk youth.
“When we take the school infrastructure away, there are questions about how we make sure kids are safe and supported,” said Laurie Bishop, director of the Montana Afterschool Alliance, a Great Falls-based organization that advocates for after-school programs and expanded learning opportunities across Montana. “The issues I’m hearing from my sector is people are genuinely concerned about kids’ safety. School and after-school [programs] help keep kids safe, whole and OK.”
Disability watchdog sues state for COVID-19 mitigation in prisons and jails
The lawsuit claims subjecting non-dangerous prisoners with disabilities to a possible outbreak of COVID-19 violates their rights to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, to individual dignity, and to due process. It asks the court to order a rapid reduction in and limitation of incarcerated people and pretrial detentions, and to issue guidance for lower courts.
Coronavirus chill hits Montana newspapers
HELENA — As the most consequential news story in a generation burns its way across Montana, newspapers large and small are feeling the coronavirus outbreak’s economic chill.
As of April 1, every large daily publication in the state is facing newsroom furloughs intended to help their companies survive the crisis, according to official announcements and internal emails provided to Montana Free Press by journalists.
Additionally, publishers and industry leaders say they’re worried the virus’ economic fallout could put small rural papers, many of them literal mom-and-pop operations, out of business entirely.
“It’s frustrating that the economics of news have come to this point, at a moment when people need more information than perhaps ever,” said Lee Banville, a journalism professor at the University of Montana. “The business now operates at such a razor-thin margin that shocks to the system translate almost immediately to effects in the newsrooms.”
In an immediate sense, Banville and others say, advertising-reliant news companies are reeling from a sudden revenue collapse as local restaurants, stores, and event venues shuttered by social distancing measures stop spending money on marketing. So while Montana news outlets are generally seeing record web traffic reflecting high public interest in the pandemic’s local impacts, that attention hasn’t translated into money to pay journalists.
What the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill means for Montana
Four days after President Donald Trump signed the largest emergency spending measure in U.S. history, the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Montana-based stimulus watchers are waiting with bated breath for details about how the act will bring aid to bear on the state economy.
While the CARES Act responds to the COVID-19 pandemic with funding allocations targeting wide swaths of society, ranging from individual Americans and small businesses to airlines, hospitals, and state governments, its language leaves many details about the administration of that spending to executive branch agencies.
So while the gears of the federal government grind out administrative rules and the logistics of delivering promised stimulus checks to millions of Americans, Montana policymakers and citizens don’t yet have a complete picture of how, where, and when the state’s shuttered businesses and furloughed workers will see relief.
Here’s what we do know.
Bullock announces temporary tenant and homeowner protections
On Tuesday, March 31, Gov. Steve Bullock released a directive stopping evictions, foreclosures and cancellation of utility services in Montana through April 10.
“One of my top priorities is continuing to find ways to ease the financial hardships on Montanans. So long as this virus forces Montanans to stay home to save lives, Montanans need a home to stay in,” Bullock said in a release announcing the directive. “This order ensures that a loss of income won’t lead to Montanans losing their homes or having the heat turned off if they can’t pay the rent or make their monthly utility bill.”
How Bozeman’s frontline health care workers are responding to COVID-19
In the past, up to four medics would respond when the Hyalite Fire Department received an EMS call in its coverage area south of Bozeman. They’d assess the situation together, care for the patient, and help the family.
“We’ve washed people’s dishes when they had to go to the hospital, or watched their dogs,” said fire chief Jason Revisky.
Now they send just one person in to do an initial assessment on non-critical patients, said Revisky, who is also a duty officer with Gallatin County’s emergency management department. The fire department began implementing protocol changes around the region weeks before the first presumptive positive test for COVID-19 was confirmed in Gallatin County on March 13.
“It’s almost like a structure fire, where the building is fully engulfed in flames,” Revisky said. “Everybody can’t run in. It’s too dangerous.”
Governor directs travelers to self-quarantine
All travelers entering or returning to the state of Montana should self-quarantine, according to a directive issued by Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday, March 30.
The directive applies to residents and non-residents entering Montana from another state or country for non-work-related purposes. The self-quarantine should last for 14 days or the duration of the trip, whichever is shorter, the directive said.
The directive said that travel from another state or country is the most common source of COVID-19 infections in Montana.
Nursing schools cancel clinical rotations for students, raising questions about graduation
One reason for the cancellations is the potential transmission of the coronavirus from patients to students, and vice versa; groups of students in Washington and California were forced into two-week quarantines this month after potentially being exposed to the disease during health care training.
Another reason is the added strain that students in clinical environments would put on the stores of personal protective equipment that hospitals nationwide note are already in dangerously short supply.
MT Lowdown Podcast
This week’s guests are:
—Rose Hughes, executive director of the Montana Health Care Association, on how long-term-care facilities are balancing safety measures with prolonged isolation
—Stephanie Stratton, chief programs officer of the Montana Food Bank Network, on how increased demand and limited supplies are challenging the food safety net
—Journalist Amanda Eggert on how Montana daycares and community organizations are responding to a disrupted childcare system
—MTFP reporter Eric Dietrich on the state’s budget preparedness for a pandemic
Montana records first COVID-19 death, of Troy man in Kalispell
Jim Tomlin lived with his wife, Marcia Hunter Tomlin, on Bull Lake about 20 miles south of Troy in rural northwestern Montana. His son, G. Scott Tomlin, wanted to amplify and share the meaning of his father’s death, so he wrote a long public post on Facebook about the odyssey that began on Monday.
Glacier National Park closes over coronavirus concerns
Glacier National Park announced it will temporarily close, as of 5 p.m. Friday, March 27, in coordination with the state of Montana, Flathead County, Glacier County, and the Blackfeet Tribe.
“We’re closed until we all feel that it is safe to reopen,” Superintendent Jeff Mow said in an interview with Montana Free Press as the park closed.
Vacation rental data suggests visitors seeking shelter in Montana
One day late last week, Dan Vermillion, owner of Sweetwater Travel in Livingston, woke up to a flurry of emails.
There were seven different requests to book his vacation rentals for up to six months. Normally, a booking is three days, five days, maybe a week.
“Something had changed very quickly,” Vermillion said.
Across Montana, the big sky and wide open spaces that attract tourists year round for skiing, fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing are suddenly valued for a new reason: plenty of room for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Coronavirus report: Helena
You don’t need a horror movie to scare Helenans today. The coronavirus pandemic is here, detected first in a federal employee last week.
A government town of 32,000, Helena is coping, so far. Some businesses were still open this week, before the governor signed a stay-at-home shelter order effective Saturday, March 28.
But Helena’s downtown centerpieces — historic Last Chance Gulch and its connected walking mall — are deserted at lunchtime.
Montana economists always note that government employees stabilize the gyrations of a wobbling economy. But this pandemic has changed the calculus and social norms here.
Bullock announces first COVID-19 death in Montana
Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday evening announced the first death in Montana of a COVID-19 patient.
“I’m heartbroken to learn of Montana’s first death due to COVID-19,” Bullock said in a statement released around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday. “Especially during these times, Montana truly is one big small town – this news hits us hard, but we’re in this together. My family and I send our love and support to the family, friends, and community of our fellow Montanan.”
Local county public health officials were still in the process of contacting family members, and no additional information was provided.
Governor orders Montanans to “stay at home”
Gov. Steve Bullock issued a “stay at home” order during a press call at the state Capitol on Thursday.
Bullock’s directive requires Montanans to stay home and temporarily closes all nonessential businesses and operations to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
The order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. on March 28, will buy time for health care workers, and seeks to limit long-term impacts to the state’s economy, Bullock said.
“In consultation with public health experts, health care providers, and emergency management professionals, I have determined that to protect public health and human safety, it is essential, to the maximum extent possible, individuals stay at home or at their place of residence,” Bullock said. “There’s no doubt that COVID-19 is causing a lot of hardship. It’s also causing incredible hardships for our frontline doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff across the country.”
Bullock’s directive will be in effect through Friday, April 10, and requires all businesses and operations in Montana, except for essential businesses and operations as defined in the directive, to cease all activities.
The directive also prohibits all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a household or place of residence.
Essential services and businesses will remain operational and open. Businesses deemed essential are required to comply with social distancing guidelines when possible, including maintaining six feet of distance people, having sanitizing products available, and designating hours of operation specifically for vulnerable populations.
Under the directive, Montanans may leave their homes for essential activities, including:
- For health and safety. To engage in activities or perform tasks essential to their health and safety, or to the health and safety of their family or household members (including, but not limited to, pets), such as, by way of example only and without limitation, seeking emergency services, obtaining medical supplies or medication, or visiting a health care professional.
- For necessary supplies and services. To obtain necessary services or supplies for themselves and their family or household members, or to deliver those services or supplies to others, such as, by way of example only and without limitation, groceries and food, household consumer products, supplies they need to work from home, and products necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences
- For outdoor activity. To engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with social distancing, as defined below, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, running, or biking. Individuals may go to public parks and open outdoor recreation areas, including public lands in Montana provided they remain open to recreation. Montanans are discouraged from outdoor recreation activities that pose enhanced risks of injury or could otherwise stress the ability of local first responders to address the COVID-19 emergency (e.g., backcountry skiing in a manner inconsistent with avalanche recommendations or in closed terrain).
- For certain types of work. To perform work providing essential products and services at Essential Businesses or Operations or to otherwise carry out activities specifically permitted in this Directive, including Minimum Basic Operations.
- To take care of others. To care for a family member, friend, or pet in another household, and to transport family members, friends, or pets as allowed by this Directive.
Coronavirus report: Butte
This is a city known for socializing, its wild parties and extravagant festivals. So when, on concerns about the looming spread of the novel coronavirus, the county health department last week preemptively shut down St. Patrick’s Day festivities, the annual bash that has drawn as many as 30,000 people in years past, there was some astonishment across Montana.
Up until the last minute, Butte had made plans to go forward with its big, often messy annual Irish parade and party. But when the decision was made, Butte’s residents jumped into the other thing they seem to do best — mobilizing a community response to a crisis.
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