On the same day as the state's first reported death from COVID-19, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday issued a shelter-in-place order, a measure meant to keep the state's 1.06 million residents at home in an attempt to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
“I’m heartbroken to learn of Montana’s first death due to COVID-19," Bullock said in a press release late Thursday. "Especially during these times, Montana truly is one big small town — this news hits us hard, but we’re in this together. My family and I send our love and support to the family, friends and community of our fellow Montanan.”
No further information was released about the death Thursday night as local public health officials worked to contact the person's family.
The order to stay at home, which takes effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m. and expires April 10, will have a dramatic effect on day-to-day life here. Bullock said Thursday he understands the hardships it places on Montanans, but told residents it's a necessary step to do everything possible to try to prevent an even sharper spike in COVID-19 cases that would flood the state's health care system.
"I'm taking these measures today because we need to stay in front of this pandemic and slow the growth of infection so that our health care system is not overwhelmed," Bullock said. "It's our front-line doctors and nurses and taking care of our friends and neighbors. I'd rather be accused of overreacting than having a health care system overwhelmed and unable to help our most-at-risk Montanans when they need it the most. I'd rather our doctors and our nurses and our health care professionals know that Montanans from all across our state have their backs and are doing our part to lessen their burdens. I'd rather keep as many people as healthy as possible. After all, in order to have a healthy economy, we need to have a healthy population."
Montana reached 90 known cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, by Thursday afternoon. Since the first four cases were announced March 13, the virus has spread from the urban population centers to remote corners of the state, reaching 16 counties. Gallatin has been hardest hit, reporting 38 people who had tested positive by Thursday afternoon, making up 42% of the state's cases. That community is the only one in Montana to report evidence of community spread, in addition to cases related to domestic and international travel.
Seven people in the state have been hospitalized because of COVID-19.
Bullock's order generally tells people to stay home except to conduct essential activities like purchasing groceries or medications and to travel to some types of work and to care for others in need. Essential businesses are allowed to operate, but all others must close. Employees are allowed to work from home when possible, however. Essential businesses that keep operating must comply with social distancing requirements.
This follows previous orders that shut down public K-12 schools, as well as bars, theaters, gyms and other places where theaters congregate. Restaurants are still allowed to offer to-go and delivery services under Bullock's directive.
Similar orders telling residents to stay at home are in place in other states in the region, like Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado and New Mexico, according to a map compiled by the New York Times. Across the country, a total of 22 states including Montana have some sort of statewide order, while about 15 others have some sort of orders issued by counties or cities.
Under Montana's shelter-in-place order, people will still be allowed to exercise outdoors near their homes, but must follow orders banning nonessential social and recreational gatherings outside a home or place of residence, if a distance of at least 6 feet between people cannot be maintained.
Earlier in the week Bullock asked stores to follow rules keeping people 6 feet apart, though he exempted essential places like grocery stores, health care facilities and pharmacies.
Essential businesses include health care and public health operations; human services operations; essential governmental functions; the media and essential infrastructure functions.
Also exempt are stores that sell groceries and medicine; food and beverage production; agriculture operations; food banks and shelters; gas stations; and things that facilitate transportation such as auto repair and bicycle shops. Also still open are banks; hardware and supply stores; and trades like plumbers, electricians, cleaning services for commercial and government buildings; mail and delivery services; laundromats and dry cleaners; and to-go and delivery from restaurants.
Lyft and Uber services are also allowed, as are home-based care and services. Real estate services are also allowed.
Hotels also may stay open, as will funeral services.
All travel should be limited to essential travel, which includes to care for others and to get to essential jobs. Public transit may remain open, but riders must follow social distancing requirements.
People may leave their homes to address their own or their household's heath and safety needs, such as to purchase supplies, seek emergency services or see a doctor. Households include people and pets. People may also leave their homes to care for others.
The directive is a public health order enforceable by county attorneys, the state attorney general and the Department of Public Health and Human Services, though Bullock said he hoped Montanans would willingly comply in recognition of the measure's necessity to keep residents safe.
"What I hope will happen is that we'll all be self-enforcing," Bullock said. "It shouldn't take a sheriff to say 'Let's use some common sense here.' But it does have enforcement authority in it."
Public health experts have said because Montana was among the last states to announce a known COVID-19 case and is less densely populated than others, it has a chance to act aggressively to slow the spread of the virus and learn from the responses in areas that have been hit hard, like Seattle, New York and San Francisco.
While it's too soon to tell how those measures might slow the spread of the virus, Montanans are seeing shock waves through the economy with businesses closed. Bullock said 21,000 people have already filed unemployment benefit claims with the state.
Being vigilant about social distancing is the best way to keep people safe and healthy and slow the spread of the virus, Stacey Anderson, lead epidemiologist at the state health department, said Thursday.
"This is a community effort. This is something we can all do together to protect the people in our community who are at the highest risk of COVID-19," Anderson said.
Counties now have the option of holding the June 2 primary by mail, though Bullock's directive this week also expanded the early voting period where people can cast ballots in person. Elections administrators must ensure people follow rules on social distancing and keep at least 6 feet apart while voting or registering to vote.