Bullock announces new state-wide restrictions and aid
Last updated 11/18/2020 at 12:47pm
Gov. Steve Bullock announced Tuesday new restrictions will take effect Friday in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19 throughout Montana, which he said has created a dire situation.
"These are restrictions that I don't take lightly, but they are a necessity," he said during a press conference Tuesday. "We're all sick of this virus, but we all have to collectively recognize that this virus won't stop spreading through our communities any time soon, unless we take active steps to stop the spread, and the responsibility to do that rests with each and every one of us."
Bullock also announced more state aid is available for individuals and businesses.
Among the new restrictions is the requirement that restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos operate at a maximum of 50 percent capacity and close no later than 10 p.m. Tables will be limited to six people and establishments are still required to maintain social distancing.
This is the only restriction that isn't already covered by Hill County Public Health Director and Health Officer Kim Larson's recent order. Other restrictions include limiting public gatherings to 25 individuals where social distancing is not possible -with places of worship exempted - and to require face coverings in all counties regardless of case count.
He said no planned end date to these restrictions is set and the situation in Montana will need to improve considerably before they are lifted.
Bullock said the situation Montana is in requires that people stay home as much as possible, limit or preferably eliminate their attendance gatherings and wear masks when going outside to prevent spread of the virus.
"By catching the respiratory droplets that contain COVID-19, masks stop the virus spreading to our neighbors and our loved ones," he said. "... My mask protects you and your mask protects me."
Bullock said research suggests masks can also protect the one wearing them but protecting others should be enough reason to wear one.
Bullock said the situation in Montana is taking a considerable toll on the health care system, and these restrictions are meant, in part, to help avert further strain.
"Lives are at stake in what we each do individually between now and the wide-spread availability of the vaccine, he said. "... Our health care workers are exhausted and our hospital resources are becoming exhausted."
He said positive case are surging to levels unseen prior, causing health care workers to see their available resources drop significantly.
Kalispell Regional Hospital has 70 people out of work due to COVID-19, he said.
Bullock said the state is working on contracting services for facilities that are overwhelmed and 100 or more medical staff should be available in Montana within the next week, hopefully.
He said state officials are communicating daily with health officers and facility staff to keep up-to-date on the situation.
Quarantine and isolation takes people out of work, straining business, Bullock said, and further spread of the virus will only bring more death and strain to hospitals.
"Our health care system will eventually not be able to sustain this rate," he said.
Vaccine approval could be near
Bullock said encouraging news has come out in past weeks about two possible COVID-19 vaccines that could be distributed to a small initial part of the public as soon as the end of the year.
He said there's no way of knowing when the rest of the population will get it just yet, and no one should assume the U.S. is out of the woods.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, that tunnel is long and Montana, like most other states is squarely in the middle of it," Bullock said.
The pharmaceutical company Pfizer has announced it is in the last stages of testing a vaccine that appears to have a very high success rate.
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Bureau Chief Jim Murphy said the state has some flexibility in handling the Pfizer vaccine, but storage will be a challenge because it requires extremely cold temperatures. He said dry ice is being brought in, but distribution in rural areas may be a difficult.
Murphy said five sites for vaccine storage have been identified, but most of them are in major population centers.
He said those problems are being worked on and solved piece by piece.
He said he's hoping that the risk of COVID-19 will be incentive enough for people to get the vaccine.
Hopefully, by then the studies will be complete on its safety and efficacy, he said.
Working with public health
Bullock said anyone looking to hold an event should consult with local public health about how to keep people safe, but they really shouldn't be having them at all, even with family, if there are too many people.
"I urge Montanans in the strongest terms to limit their involvement in any gathering involving 15 or more people, including private gatherings inside a home," he said. "Such gatherings are a significant contributor to the spread of the virus."
Bullock urged people to be especially careful this holiday season.
"This situation is serious in Montana and it's serious across the nation," he said. "We need to turn things around."
Bullock said he still believes a complete lock-down is an insurmountable task due to a lack of action on the federal level to get funds to the people who need it among the financial hardship.
"In the winter months, not being able to keep the heat on and the bills paid only exacerbates the problems we're already dealing with," he said.
More aid becoming available
Bullock said he realize that these restrictions can create new economic hardships, and in response the state government will pool together the remaining CARES Act funding they have to support businesses and individuals through another round of Business Stabilization Grants for those who've applied before.
He said $75 million will be available for businesses to purchase inventory, pay employees and keep their lights on.
People who have applied before should watch their inboxes for details, he said, one of which is the new requirement that those businesses that apply for this new round of funding must agree to follow state and local health guidelines and mandates including requiring employees and customers to wear masks.
Bullock said the state will also be launching the Interim Pandemic Assistance Program to provide up to $25 million in enhanced unemployment benefits to Montanans out of work due to COVID-19.
Anyone unemployed or partially unemployed and receiving benefits will receive a $200-a-week enhancement for a four week period beginning next week and ending the week of Dec 13.
He said this money will help the economy in the long term by stimulating the economy.
"This money is spent at Montana businesses," he said, "driving economic recovery."
He said the state will also be expanding funding allocations to the food bank and food pantry systems by $3 million.
However, he said, these efforts do not replace or excuse the federal government and its inaction.
"Let me make clear that providing this minimal relief for Montana families and businesses does not get Congress off the hook," he said. "We know the needs of Montana families and businesses are greater than what we can give them with the coronavirus relief funds, and the needs will be even greater next year.
"We need aid for nearly every part of the state's response will be to continue after the new year," he added, "including funding for schools, for child care, for testing capacity, for PPE and more."
Bullock said people should think of the work their health care professionals do and do everything they can to make their lives easier.
"We're counting on these folks," he said. "There were many months, certainly in the summer, when people were howling for our health care workers, but if we really want to thank our health care workers we can wear the masks and limit the community spread."