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Bullock suspends evictions, foreclosures, utility shutoffs

Members of the Montana press corps cover a press conference

Montana reporters cover a press conference in with Gov. Steve Bullock about the coronavirus outbreak in this early March photo.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday stopped landlords in the state from evicting tenants from their homes and charging late fees or other penalties during the course of a stay-at home order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Along with his order, Bullock announced a fifth death from the virus, but did not provide additional details.

Bullock's directive also stops residential foreclosures because of nonpayment, and prohibits charging late fees.

Montana on Saturday went under an order directing all residents to stay at home, except for essential travel and to perform essential jobs. That order shut down many businesses in the state, and came on the heels of an earlier directive that closed bars, theaters and other places where people congregate. Last week Bullock said more than 21,000 people statewide had already filed for unemployment benefits.

Montana has seen the number of COVID-19 cases climb, from four on March 13 to 198 by early Tuesday evening. Five people have died and 15 are hospitalized. Governors across the country have taken actions similar to Bullock's in an attempt to curb rapid increases of cases. 

Thirty-two people in Montana had recovered from COVID-19, Bullock said. Gallatin County still has the most cases in the state by far, at 74. That's more than double the next-closest county, Yellowstone, at 31. About 4,558 tests for Montanans had been processed at the public health laboratory in Helena. That does not include tests run at private labs.

The governor said Tuesday in a call with reporters that in addition to keeping people safe and healthy, he wants to ease the financial hardships for those hurt as nonessential businesses have been ordered to close and many others shut down even before the directive to stay at home.

"As Montanans take seriously the responsibility to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, they shouldn't also have to worry about whether they can keep a roof over their heads or if they'll have running water. They shouldn't have to worry about having the heat turned off, (or) if they can't pay the rent or make a monthly utility bill," Bullock said.

The governor also halted shutting off electric, gas, sewer, water, phone and internet services or charging late fees. NorthWestern Energy, the main gas and electric provider in the state, had already done so.

The order does not relieve tenants or homeowners of their payment obligations, Bullock said, and he told those who could pay their bills to do so.

" … Now let me be clear, this directive is not a free pass on rents or on home debt, tenants and homeowners still need to meet their obligations," Bullock said. The directive does not include provisions for landlords, though they also would have protections for their mortgages under the directive.

Bullock has the power to take the actions he did Tuesday under an emergency order he issued March 12. The directive is tied to the termination date of the stay-at-home order, April 10, though that could be extended. Bullock noted in the language of the directive that "to stay at home, Montanans must continue to have a home" and that "many Montanans are faced with the loss of their income and with it, the ability to pay their rent or mortgage."

Additionally, Bullock announced Tuesday financial assistance to help hospitals stay open and purchase supplies. Under the directive, health care, medical and related facilities may receive financing under the Montana Facility Finance Authority Act for operating expenses connected to COVID-19.

Hospitals around the state have taken measures like canceling elective procedures and clinics have essentially shut down by pushing back appointments, which costs facilities revenue.

The directive says many rural hospitals in the state reported having either no cash on hand or not enough to operate into April. At some facilities, a rush to stock up on supplies has led to rising expenses.

While the federal CARES Act provides some lending options, the directive says its benefits may not arrive for months.

"Waiting for federal funds to arrive puts the health of rural Montanans at risk," the order reads.

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