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Montana COVID-19 total at 22; gov shuts some biz
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Montana COVID-19 total at 22; gov shuts some biz

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On Friday Montana Gov. Steve Bullock ordered the statewide closure of businesses where people congregate, in a move to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while later in the day the state added six new cases, all in counties the virus hadn't reached yet.

The closure order affects places like bars, coffee shops, gyms, theaters and more. Restaurants can remain open, but are only allowed to offer takeout or delivery options. Bullock's executive order follows similar steps taken by most of the state's largest counties, as well as smaller ones, though there were notable holdouts like Cascade County.

"It really is up to all of us to prevent the spread of this virus and the sacrifices that we make now will help mitigate future action required to keep as many people safe as possible," Bullock said Friday in a call with reporters.

The new cases announced Friday included three people in Lewis and Clark County. One was a man in his 30s, another was a woman in her 40s and the third was a teenage boy. The county said the man in his 30s had traveled domestically, while teenager's case does not appear to be related to travel. Both are isolated and recovering at home.

Two new cases were also reported in Flathead County, another of the state's major population hubs that did not have a known case before Friday. One person is a man in his 50s and is not a resident of Flathead County, though that county reported his case, while the second is a man in his 30s and is a county resident. Both people traveled domestically out of the state.

One person was a health care work who had traveled and returned to work, according to a press release from Kalispell Regional Medical Center. 

Mellody Sharpton, hospital director of communications and marketing, said in an email that after the hospital became aware of the situation it tested two more people but does not have the results of other tests yet.

"This situation caused some of the KRH family to be exposed to COVID-19 and, as such, we expect that there could be other positives," Sharpton wrote.

The other case was a woman in her 50s in Madison County. She is also at home in isolation and did not need to be hospitalized. Public health officials are contacting their known contacts, who will be told to quarantine for 14 days. 

The Madison County public health nurse said the risk to the general public was very low, as the woman there quarantined herself even before she was tested, at the onset of symptoms.

The first four known COVID-19 cases in Montana were announced a week ago, March 13, and Friday's additions bring the state's total number of cases to 22. Previously the state had recorded five cases in Yellowstone County, and four each in Gallatin and Missoula. Butte-Silver Bow, Broadwater and Roosevelt counties also each have one case.

Through the week Bullock had urged people to follow social distancing guidelines and praised municipalities who acted on their own to close businesses. Some even put into place orders that went further than Bullock's, but on Friday the governor said his move was necessary to get rid of a patchwork of rules across the state that left some bars full while others just across the county line were shuttered.

"It is evident that it is both in urban and rural areas of our state, so a uniform closure seemed to be, after consultation with others, the most protective to human health and most likely to flatten the curve of spreading," Bullock said.

The closure order was set to take effect at 8 p.m. Friday and expires March 27 at 11:59 p.m., meant to align with a previous order to close all K-12 schools in the state. Bullock said in a call with reporters Friday the timeline for both would likely be extended.

Under the directive, the places that must close are:

  • Restaurants, food courts, cafes, coffeehouses and other similar establishments offering food or beverage for on-premises consumption.
  • Alcoholic beverage service businesses, including bars, taverns, brew pubs, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, special licensees, clubs, and other establishments offering alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption.
  • Cigar bars.
  • Health clubs, health spas, gyms, aquatic centers, pools and hot springs, indoor facilities at ski areas, climbing gyms, fitness studios and indoor recreational facilities.
  • Movie and performance theaters, nightclubs, concert halls, bowling alleys, bingo halls, and music halls.
  • Casinos.

Bullock encouraged places that could offer take-out or delivery to do so. He has the ability to order businesses shut under an emergency declaration he made March 12.

Also Friday, Bullock extended the instate income tax payment and filing deadlines to July 15, matching an extension at the federal level. The U.S. Census Bureau also pushed back its deadline to report to mid-August, following news Thursday it was suspending field operations for two weeks.

On Friday Bullock also acknowledged a shortage of testing supplies and personal protective equipment, but said the state is working to access federal and national suppliers.

"You can read or turn on the news or see everywhere across the country there a national shortage of supplies needed for COVID-19," Bullock said. "We're doing everything possible to overcome this challenge in Montana."

Montana is tapping into the national strategic stockpile, Bullock said. This weekend the state will also distribute a shipment of N-95 protective masks for health care workers.

Bullock also said Montana is working to get additional swabs and testing mediums, and that it's making requests to the national stockpile, reaching out to neighboring states and also private supply chains.

The state has said over the last week that testing supplies are limited, and Bullock has increasingly said he's concerned about availability, but also said that the state has enough to test those who meet CDC guidelines, such as those who are hospitalized and show symptoms, those in at-risk categories and those who have close contact with confirmed cases and also become symptomatic.

The closures and cancellation of events that have dramatically changed how life in Montana looks over the last week are all in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Public health officials have coalesced around the idea that Montana had an advantage of sorts, if residents seized on it, because the coronavirus arrived in the state later than much of the rest of the country and is not yet widespread. 

"I believe that here in Montana we have been given a huge gift, the gift that is time," said Michael Bush, the chief medical officer at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, earlier in the week.

Bullock has also been calling on Montanans to take action to "flatten the curve." That phrase has become a familiar refrain to many in the last week and is a reference to charts showing scenarios for the virus' spread, from a massive spike if guidelines aren't heeded to a gentler curve if people follow social distancing guidelines, work from home when possible and avoid discretionary travel and gatherings with more than 10 people.

In some places county health office orders forced citizens to comply and other people have voluntary taken steps, but until Bullock's order Friday the state was left with a patchwork of measures that meant bars could be full in one county but shuttered just across the county line.

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