Bullock discusses fires, finances and school re-openings in press conference
September 11, 2020
At a press conference Thursday afternoon Gov. Steve Bullock provided updates on Montana’s ongoing fire season and the pandemic situation in Montana, as well as announcing new guidelines for K-12 schools regarding potential outbreaks of COVID-19.
As of Monday, Bullock said, the state has seen 1,835 fires and burns, with over 257,350 acres affected. He said the state’s fire suppression costs have totaled $6.3 million, including emergency funds obtained through grants.
Bullock said the state has seen extreme fire growth and significant impacts to communities especially in wildlands-urban-interface zones in the last 10 days.
“Montanans have been forced from their homes and unfortunately even lost their homes,” he said.
Bullock said the Bridger-Foothills Fire in Bozeman has now reached 8,224 acres and is 52 percent contained.
He said more than 300 people are working on setting up a perimeter and preventing further spread, and 28 residences have been seriously damaged or destroyed along with numerous other buildings.
Bullock said the BobCat Fire near Roundup is now 30,000 acres large and the level of damage is still unknown. The fire has caused large evacuations in the area and is 60 percent contained.
He said some parts of the state have seen relief from extreme fire conditions, but overall abnormal dryness and fire risk is expected to continue through the middle of the month.
He said people should be expecting to see more of these wildfires and that they may be difficult to contain, so people should be extremely cautious and recreate responsibly to prevent sparks from turning into a blaze.
“These fires are stark reminders of how quickly conditions can change,” he said, “And it’s imperative that we continue to focus on fire prevention to avoid additional starts.”
Bullock said people in the state should not assume that the worst is over, given the fires that have been seen in states close to Montana.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, especially when we look at what is happening in our neighboring states of Washington, Oregon and California,” he said.
Bullock also provided an update on how school re-openings in the state have gone in the opening weeks of the academic year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Montana students, teachers and staff have already done a remarkable job to prepare for and begin the school year,” he said.
Bullock said he understands that these re-openings have required extreme amounts of planning and commended local public health and the school districts for putting in the necessary work to make the year happen.
But, he said, many schools have already encountered challenges, and he knows that there will be more, including confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Bullock said he’s particularly impressed by Philips County, which went from having a major outbreak last month to zero active cases because people took responsibility for getting the number down.
“It’s great to see the numbers back down to zero, and I commend people in the county for taking it seriously,” he said.
Bullock encouraged Montanans to continue to social distance and follow other hygiene guidelines to reduce spread.
Bullock said educators across the state have asked his office for guidance about potential outbreaks, and he asked public health officials to develop outbreak response protocols for schools to be used in consultation with local public health.
He said this guidance has been worked on for a few weeks, but does not replace the advice of local public health officials.
The guidelines include testing and isolation protocols, along with the recommendation that close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days and be tested and self-monitor, as well as guidance on when to involve local public health departments.
He said cases involving student athletes should be handled with special care and monitored for anxiety and depression under these guidelines, because disruption to extra-curricular activities combined with the general state of the pandemic can lead to these kinds of ailments in young people.
Bullock also said it’s important that the public, local public health and schools staff know when there is a positive case in a school while still respecting privacy on a legal and personal level.
The guidelines provide ways to make sure that information gets into the right hands while protecting the privacy of people who test positive for COVID-19.
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Bureau Chief Jim Murphy said the Government Health Care Information Act is strict and is designed to protect people’s privacy, but the new guidelines provide ways that vital information can be shared with people who need to know without violating the law.
Bullock responded to questions about protests being planned for Thursday in the capital, saying that although Montanans undeniably have the right to protest, he encouraged them to take the advice of health experts.
“I certainly wouldn’t discourage that,” he said, “Now what I would encourage them to do is be safe and be careful, and maybe even wear a mask.”
He said he receives the same advice every week in his calls with Vice President Mike Pence and other governors around the country — wear masks.
“This virus doesn’t care about politics,” Bullock said.
Bullock announced new funds that are available to help Montana businesses and industries and for nonprofits.
He said $10 million in CARES Act funds have been made available through the Social Services Grant Program to nonprofits in the past few months, which have been used to preserve existing services and keep employees on payroll.
Bullock said he knows these programs have helped, but he’s aware that there are many organizations that may need more than that.
He said nonprofits will be permitted to seek another round of funding and his office will be releasing guidelines for that purpose soon.
Under these guidelines, he said, organizations can apply for up to 10 percent of their 2019 annual operating budget, up to a maximum of $150,000.
He said these nonprofits must have an annual operating budget of at least $20,000 to apply and must submit a budget of how they will use the funds, stipulating that all money obtained from the grant must be used only for pandemic-related purposes.
Bullock said applications for this second round of funding will be available Tuesday, and previous users of the program will be notified that they may be eligible.
He also announced that more COVID-19 relief funds will be allocated to the Montana Meat Processing Infrastructure Grant Program, which has received a great deal of interest since its creation, making the program hyper-competitive.
“The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have drawn attention to the challenges faced by our nation’s meat processing systems,” he said. “And by addressing these complex issues here in Montana we’re building resilience to future supply chain interruptions in communities across the state.”
He said in-state meat processing facilities are invaluable to Montanans during this time and they need funds for infrastructure.
Bullock specifically pointed out a Manhattan processor that has expanded cold storage so people in the area don’t have to rely as much on out-of-state meat packers, which have been facing slowdowns amid the pandemic.
He said a clear increased interest in buying local meat during the pandemic exists, and he called it a silver-lining in an otherwise tumultuous time.
Bullock said Montana’s financial situation as a whole remains strong during the pandemic.
He said Fitch Ratings recently reaffirmed Montana’s AA+ bond rating and a strong overall outlook, and he said Moody’s Investor Service has been similarly complimentary.
Bullock also addressed the Department of Labor’s Sept. 5 announcement that the $400 a week in extra unemployment benefits provided to Montanans through the Lost Wages Assistance Program, created by President Donald Trump via executive order, will no longer be available.
He said everyone was aware that it would be temporary, but he’s urging Congress to find a sustainable solution that actually provides stability to people facing unemployment.
“We’ve done everything we can on the state side,” he said.
Bullock said the pandemic, combined with an unusually dangerous fire season has made for difficult time in the state that weighs heavily on peoples’ minds with good reason.
“There’s no doubt that we continue to live in unprecedented times,” he said, “… The 8,659 Montanans who’ve been diagnosed positive with COVID-19 or the 103 Montanans who’ve lost their lives from this virus is not to be taken lightly, neither are the homes and memories that were lost with it to wildfires.”
“These numbers are more than just statistics; they’re cherished family members and beloved friends,” he added.
Bullock said that, amid the bleakness, bright spots can be found, especially when considering the firefighters, law enforcement and local, state and federal partners who have worked night and day to keep Montanan’s safe from wildfires.
“I think of the DNRC firefighters who, on the same day our flags were at half-staff after losing Bozeman firefighter Tom Duffy, had to deploy their fire shelters and were unable to return home to their families. It’s the first time we’ve had to deploy fire shelters in 50 years, what that means is the fire effectively burns right over and around you,” he said. “I think of the health care professionals and nurses who continue to put their health at risk in order to care for COVID-19 patients, I think of the nonprofits who continue to deliver services, and the businesses that are taking the right steps to keep employees and customers safe. In all of these moments we see Montanans putting their differences aside to protect the state that we love, that really is our way of life. … We will make it through this and we will make it through together.”