Downtown Bozeman reopening

A car drives down an empty Main Street during the first week of Gallatin County’s stay-at-home order March 18 in Bozeman.

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BOZEMAN, Mont. — Montana’s stay-at-home order will be lifted on Sunday.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s office released Wednesday a plan that lifts the order, allows some businesses and places of worship to reopen and outlines what precautions should be taken to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus.

In phase one of the three-phase plan, places of worship can begin to reopen April 26 — this Sunday. Main Street and retail businesses can reopen April 27. Other restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos can begin operations May 4 but must close each night by 11:30 p.m.

Even as these places begin to reopen, Bullock’s plan asks that people adhere to strict physical distancing guidelines.

Beginning May 7, public schools are allowed to reopen.

However, counties, cities and school districts still have the authority to establish stricter local restrictions or keep these places closed.

Gyms, theaters, bowling alleys and other places of assembly will remain closed in phase one of Bullock’s plan. Long-term care facilities will continue to restrict visitors. Gatherings of 10 people or more should still be avoided in circumstances in which social distancing guidelines cannot be maintained, according to the governor’s plan. Vulnerable citizens should still plan to stay home.

Travelers who come to Montana from another state or country are still required to self-quarantine for 14 days and non-essential travel should be limited.

There’s no timeline for when phase two or phase three of the plan will begin.

Bullock said people should still take precautions to avoid contracting and spreading the virus, like using a non-medical cloth mask when in public, washing hands and keeping 6 feet of distance between one another.

“As these businesses open, as more Montanans leave their homes, I’m asking all Montanans to continue to act like a loved one’s life depends on your actions, because they do,” Bullock said.

Bullock said Montana has the lowest number of cases and hospitalizations per capita in the country and that it’s a result of the state “aggressively managing” the virus. He said there are few states that can say their number of positive cases has declined.

“Montana can say that because, together, we made that decline in cases possible. We have flattened the curve and saved lives,” Bullock said.

Bullock pointed to Gallatin County as an example of where contact tracing has been done well.

Bob Connors, superintendent of Bozeman public schools, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. He told the Chronicle earlier this week that Bullock’s announcement would hold a lot of weight as the district plans for the rest of the school year. But ultimately, the decision to reopen the schools for in-class instruction is up to the school board with agreement from the county health department, Connors said.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health will vote on whether to extend its own business restrictions in the county Thursday morning. The Gallatin City-County Health Department ordered businesses to close on March 16 — before Bullock enacted statewide restrictions on March 20.

Matt Kelley, health officer for Gallatin County, said that in light of the governor’s announcement, health department staff will work to help businesses and places of worship open in a safe way. That effort will include sending out information and guidelines to help those places follow social distancing and sanitation guidelines. The health department held focus groups with business owners and religious leaders last week to talk about reopening.

Some businesses will be required to limit building capacity and to continue encouraging telework when possible.

Kelley said people still need to be cautious, even after businesses and public spaces reopen, that COVID-19 is just as contagious as ever.

“(The virus) remains dangerous. We’re likely to see an increase in cases,” Kelley said.

Kelley said he couldn’t speak to whether the board of health will enact stricter regulations than the state. The board oversees the health department.

The health department, the board and the state have been criticized through public comment and letters from officials for closing businesses and requiring some people to stay home. Some have argued the regulations are unconstitutional or unnecessary.

Both the governor’s office and the local health department outlined benchmarks that would help determine when the state and county are ready for reopening. Those include the ability to test anyone who qualifies, the capacity for public health staff to trace the virus effectively and the hospital having the ability to treat patients without crisis standards of care.

Kelley said he’s confident that Gallatin County has met these benchmarks for now, but that those benchmarks could change. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control could release guidance saying anyone, not just someone who is symptomatic, should be able to get a test. That might not be something the county is ready for, Kelley said.

Kelley said that even though he feels good about the health department’s ability to conduct contact tracing and test people who are symptomatic, staff will still work to increase the department’s capacity to handle those things if there’s a surge in cases.

“I think we’re in a better position that we were six weeks ago. What we’ve done is bought ourselves some time,” Kelley said.

Gallatin County has consistently had more than a third of the COVID-19 cases in the state. As of Wednesday, the county had counted 145 cases since March 13. The state has had 439 cases with 296 patients recovered.

Republican state lawmakers launched a campaign, called START Montana, earlier this week urging the reopening of businesses. The campaign released videos of state lawmakers asking Bullock to reverse some of the orders he’s given over the last couple of weeks and outlining the economic hardship business owners have faced.

Some of the lawmakers sent Bullock a letter criticizing his statewide restrictions. Bullock responded saying they were “politicizing a dangerous health crisis.”

Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, one of the lawmakers who signed the letter, said Wednesday’s announcement is a step in the right direction.

Sales said he appreciated that Bullock’s plan to reopen businesses is in line with a plan released by President Donald Trump and that the state plan allows cities and counties some latitude to make their own decisions. Sales said the Montana Republican caucus is all for restarting the economy in a safe way.

Sales said he hopes Bullock will include state lawmakers in future decision-making and in managing the state budget.

“It’d be nice if the governor had included the Legislature in this decision making, but he didn’t and that’s his prerogative,” Sales said.

Bullock said Wednesday that although restrictions are being lifted, now is not the time to celebrate. He said the state still needs more supplies like personal protective gear and testing materials to deal with the pandemic, although shipments of both came in earlier this week.

Bullock said lifting some restrictions doesn’t mean things are back to normal.

“I am going to ask Montanans to continue to go to great lengths to protect one another, to continue looking out for our neighbors who need it the most, and to continue being vigilant in every step we take,” Bullock said.