Cautious reopening of Montana begins

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Raigan and Kora Vandree took a break from their online lessons at home to send a message out to one of their teachers. According to the teacher, the education process during the school closure has been challenging for parents, students, and educators alike. Submitted photo

The phased reopening of Montana began this week, with businesses and customers slowly adapting to masks, hand sanitizer, health assessments and physical separation requirements.

Gov. Steve Bullock lifted his statewide stay-at-home order for residents on Sunday, though continued to encourage people to stay six feet apart and protect others with masks or other face coverings. Vulnerable residents should continue to self-isolate.

Businesses were allowed to open Monday if they maintain physical distance between employees and customers, abide by strict disinfection and cleaning protocols, ensure monitoring of employee temperatures and symptoms, and limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Waiting areas are closed. Masks or face coverings are encouraged, and appointments and pre-screening temperatures are encouraged for patrons. Telework and alternate work schedules continue to be encouraged where possible.

Churches and faith organizations must also abide by social distancing requirements between families, with no physical contact, food or drink sharing. Limited gatherings are allowed if distancing can be maintained.

Outdoor activities are allowed at parks and playgrounds, though gathering spots and clubhouses must remain closed. Out-of-state guides and clients must abide by the two-week statewide quarantine before associating with others. Guide shuttles and fishing boat capacity are also limited, with requirements for face coverings and physical distancing. Single-family camping is allowed at campgrounds, though people should be careful when using shared bathroom facilities. Some businesses and places of assembly must

Some businesses and places of assembly must remain closed in this first phase, including gyms, hot tubs, pools, movie theaters and concert halls. Nursing homes and senior care facilities remain closed for visits, and must continue strict disinfection and employee health monitoring. Child care facilities must follow state and local guidelines for occupancy and operational levels.

Beaverhead County Public Health board approved the phase one reopening guidelines at a special April 24 meeting, though city of Dillon Mayor Mike Klakken objected.

“I’m not even liking what the governor put out,” he said. “I think it’s still too restrictive.”

Public health approved guidelines that specified 100 degrees Fahrenheit as the temperature to send employees home with a fever, which is stricter than the governor’s plan. Bullock’s guidelines only require temperature checks.

Sheriff Paul Craft told the public health board it may be difficult to police compliance for outdoor activities throughout the county with a small sheriff’s department. He asked the board to try and contact all the guides and outfitters that come into the area and make them aware of the 14-day self-quarantine for travelers and out-of-state visitors, and other requirements for face coverings, cleaning and limits on numbers of people in shuttles and boats.

“They need to know the rules before coming here,” he said.

Public Health Director Sue Hansen said they are trying to do so, but staff also expect the public will call with complaints.

“If there’s blatant disregard, we have people call and complain all the time,” she added.

The Beaverhead County Commissioners decided Monday to keep the county courthouse office doors locked to the general public, though offices are available by appointment only. Government offices fall under the main street businesses guidelines in the state and local reopening plans. Different department heads are making plans for how they will serve the public when the doors do open. Some officials are purchasing barriers between stations and the public, and ensuring they have hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to use between customer visits. Department heads will present their plans and update the commission as to their readiness on May 11, and the commission will decide at that point if they can open the doors to foot traffic and still abide by county and state requirements.

Next week begins the slow reopening of restaurants, bars, distilleries and casinos, with strict requirements on spacing and limiting the number of people present. All patrons must be out of those businesses by 11:30 p.m. The public health board will meet today, Wednesday, to outline local requirements for reopening these establishments.

Schools are allowed to reopen for classroom instruction May 7, if school boards believe they can maintain those distancing and disinfection measures. Bullock said he felt that decision (and graduation plans) needed to be a local school board decision. The Montana High School Association board canceled the spring 2020 sports season due to the ongoing pandemic.

Beaverhead County Superintendent of Schools Linda Marsh told the public health board April 24 she would prefer all schools remain at distance learning through the end of the year, rather than having a patchwork of open and closed schools in the county.

“When we’re dealing with little kids – imagine first graders that haven’t seen each other for a couple of weeks. They’re going to want to be hugging each other and running off with each other,” she said, adding some of those smaller schools have one or two teachers on site to manage groups of students. “I don’t like the potential for exposure for my families and students.”

The board did not approve a blanket policy for school openings, though it may address it at the next meeting today, Wednesday. Graduation may also be discussed at that time.

The public health guidelines can be viewed at Outdoor-042420-.pdf .

Virus cases, deaths continue to rise

There were 451 cases and 15 deaths as of Tuesday in Montana, with the newest cases in Cascade and Yellowstone counties. That compares to 437 cases and 12 deaths as of last week at the same time.

There were 957,875 cases and 53,922 deaths reported as of Sunday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There have been no new cases or deaths in Beaverhead or Madison counties.

The CDC listed more possible symptoms of COVID-19 to watch for, which include fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and a new loss of taste or smell. The symptoms may appear two- to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Bullock said when announcing the phased reopening plan that the coronavirus will continue to circulate until an effective treatment is devised, and he expects there will be more cases. Bullock said the reopening plan tries to balance community safety while ensuring the economy continues to function. He also stressed personal responsibility among Montanans and visitors will determine how well the phasing works.

Bullock did not set a time frame on when phase two – the more relaxed guidelines for businesses and gatherings – would begin, adding that it depends on data and public safety.

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