The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the globe. As of Monday, there were 366,919 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with 16,097 deaths recorded, and 100,879 recovered cases. In Montana, there were 45 cases statewide, with one in Ravalli County.
On March 24, Governor Steve Bullock issued an additional directive to extend closures of public schools and dine-in food service and alcoholic beverage businesses through April 10 (from the previous date of March 27th) and mandate social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Montana.
“Montanans have an obligation to slow the spread of this virus. Our fellow Montanans can all continue to set a good example for each other in adhering to social distancing directives – and know that it will save lives,” Governor Bullock said. “For every person who stays at home and avoids non-essential gatherings, the better our chances to fight this virus and protect our frontline health care workers and emergency responders.”
Governor Bullock announced that effective immediately, non-essential social and recreational gatherings of individuals outside of a home or place of residence of greater than ten people are prohibited, if a distance of at least six feet between individuals cannot be maintained. This measure is consistent with actions taken in other states to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Retail businesses are also required to establish, implement, and enforce social distancing policies to ensure a minimum of six feet between customers, effective March 28, 2020. This requirement does not apply to grocery, health care, medical, or pharmacy services, although they are also encouraged to comply with social distancing protocols if possible.
School districts should follow the planning guidance provided in the March 19, 2020 directive to seek waivers of pupil instruction time and obtain continued state funding during this period.
The directive, like its predecessor orders, is a public health order enforceable by county attorneys. It preempts all county health ordinances if they are less restrictive.
Montana is also preparing for a potential surge of patients needing hospital care. On Monday, Governor Bullock announced a directive that temporarily waives the bidding process to quickly procure or distribute emergency supplies or contract for additional space to care for patients. Additionally, the directive streamlines the process for releasing patients and discharging them back to their home communities without delay as they recover, which will free up beds and equipment for new patients.
Last week, Montana Governor Steve Bullock imposed other state-wide directives to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak across the state.
“Both young and older Montanans, in urban and rural communities, have tested positive for coronavirus, making it even more clear that this virus impacts us all and these actions are imperative to protecting our friends and neighbors.
“We face extraordinary health risks – and with it even further risks to our economic and social well-being – if we do not act now. I do not take these decisions lightly and they were done so in consultation with public health professionals. Montanans, too, need to take this seriously. It’s up to all of us to stop the spread of this virus,” said Bullock in a recent press release.
The Governor issued a travel advisory for Montanans who have traveled internationally to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning to Montana.
He also announced measures to close dine-in food service and alcoholic beverage businesses and other activities that pose enhanced health risks, effective at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 20, 2020 and now extending through April 10th.
Under the directive, the following places are closed to use and occupancy by members of the public:
• Restaurants, food courts, cafes, coffeehouses, and other similar establishments offering food or beverage for on-premises consumption.
• Alcoholic beverage service businesses, including bars, taverns, brew pubs, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, special licensees, clubs, and other establishments offering alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption.
• Cigar bars.
• Health clubs, health spas, gyms, aquatic centers, pools and hot springs, indoor facilities at ski areas, climbing gyms, fitness studios, and indoor recreational facilities.
• Movie and performance theaters, nightclubs, concert halls, bowling alleys, bingo halls, and music halls.
The Governor’s office announced that the State of Montana will pay for COVID-19 tests and treatment for all uninsured Montanans. State funds and potentially federal funds will be used to pay for testing and treatment beginning on March 23. Access to telemedicine services are also expanded to ensure Medicaid patients receive quality health care in their homes to prevent unnecessary gatherings at health care facilities and slow the spread of COVID-19. To access this emergency assistance Montanans can call 406-444-7605 or email [email protected]
Emergency measures have also been undertaken to address the impacts of expected high levels of unemployment. The emergency rules make unemployment benefits accessible to workers laid off due to COVID-19 and waive the one week waiting period before receiving benefits. The rules will ensure that workers impacted by COVID-19, whether it’s because they’ve been laid off, are quarantined, or need to take care of a family member, can do so without worrying about how they will make ends meet during these difficult times.
Payment and filing deadlines for 2019 individual income taxpayers has been extended to July 15 in accordance with the new federal filing deadline. The deadline for those making estimated tax payments for the first quarter of 2020 has also been extended to July 15. The due date for the second quarter remains July 15 at this time. Tax resources are available at: https://mtrevenue.gov/taxes/
The governor’s message stressed that social distancing is one of the most important primary protective measures to flatten the curve of this virus.
“I cannot underscore the seriousness of following these measures to help our neighbors, friends, and families,” said Bullock.
If you have any symptoms, stay home. Call your doctor or local public health provider for consultation. Do not drive to the doctor’s office or emergency room.
The Coronavirus Task Force has an informational phone line at 1-888-333-0461 and Montanans can also email questions to [email protected]
You can also find information on the Task Force actions at COVID19.mt.gov. You can also visit the DPHHS website at www.dphhs.mt.gov for the most up to date and timely health information related to the coronavirus.
Ravalli County officials set up an Incident Management Team (IMT) on March 17, that includes Commissioner Jeff Burrows, Public Health Nurse Karyn Johnston, and current team leader Public Health Officer Dr. Carol Calderwood.
At that time there were no cases yet reported in Ravalli County, and the Commissioners were recommending individuals take voluntary actions to help “flatten the curve” of the predicted spread of the outbreak, including hand washing, social distancing and restricting travel and other measures. Although K-12 schools were closed by the state, no business closures were undertaken in the county.
Then on March 20, following the governor’s announcement of the directive closing certain businesses, the county’s Incident Management Team issued a statement saying, “The Governor’s order this morning probably moved our County to a position we may have eventually gotten to ourselves, it was just faster.” It went on to state, “There is not a lot of control we have over the virus, but we do have control over how we take care of ourselves. Frequently—wash your hands and wipe commonly touched surfaces including doorknobs and outside play equipment, avoid touching your face, cover your coughs, etc. By now, we should have these precautions memorized.”
The Ravalli County Commissioners held a meeting that same day, the purpose of which, according to Commission Chairman Chris Hoffman, was “not to discuss or propose mandatory closures of Ravalli County businesses. Rather, we are discussing costs associated with managing this emergency.” Declaring a state of emergency, he said, positions Ravalli County to receive resources and benefits for Ravalli County Emergency Services. The commissioners strongly encouraged residents to “stay calm, follow recommended cleaning measures, practice social distancing measures and to stay home if you are sick.”
To avoid a large public meeting, the Commissioners are recommending that comments be sent to the Commissioners by email: [email protected] The meeting can be watched live on Ravalli County’s website at https://ravalli.us/493/Live-and-Archived-Meetings-Audio-Video.
On March 21, the day following the County emergency declaration and the State directive closing certain businesses, the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Ravalli County was reported.
Dr. Calderwood, the county’s Incident Commander, said, “We knew the virus would eventually get to Ravalli County. We are prepared, and we are taking steps to help ensure the health and safety of our citizens.” Several “imperatives” were listed in the announcement:
1. Everyone should stay home as much as possible and avoid ALL nonessential public activities. Continue to practice 6 feet social distancing.
2. Avoid overwhelming our medical system. Stay home unless you are short of breath or otherwise need urgent care. Call your provider or public health with other questions: 888-333-0461.
3. People living in communal settings such as nursing homes, assisted living, independent senior living apartments and group homes should stay in the residences. Managers should facilitate and take supportive steps such as arranging for grocery shopping.
4. Wash hands and frequently touched surface regularly and avoid touching your face without clean hands.
The County Health Department is organizing a volunteer group of citizens to help provide assistance with grocery shopping and possibly other community services such as cleaning public facilities.
“There are people that may feel uncomfortable being in public at this time due to the risk of exposure. We would like to make staying home easier and safer,” stated the IMT update. “We, the IMT and your county officials value all of our residents and what they have to offer our community.”
Volunteers must be 18 to 25 years old, have their own transportation, live in a household without dependents, or older housemates, and available to work several hours. Call 406-375-6672. The reason an age-criteria was established is to limit the risk/exposure of a higher risk population.
Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton announced some temporary procedures that took effect on March 24th. Sheriff Holton said that to mitigate public and staff exposure, the following temporary changes will me made:
• Public fingerprinting is suspended until further notice.
• Civil process, Concealed Weapons, Offender Registration and other paperwork will be handled on an appointment basis. Anyone wishing to make an appointment should call the RCSO at 406-375-4060 .
• People who wish to make a non-emergent report with the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office should remain at their homes and call 406-363-3033 .
• The main Sheriff’s Lobby and Detention Lobby will be restricted to four people at a time.
• The Jail Diversion Office will be restricted to two people at a time.
• Twice-a-day breath tests for the 24/7 program have been suspended. Offenders ordered to the 24/7 Sobriety Program are being supervised and monitored with remote breath and CAM bracelet technology.
In order to facilitate and make it as convenient as possible for people to transact business with the RCSO, appointments can be made with the RCSO from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays.
Jail Diversion is open and staffed from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday by appointment only.
The Ravalli County Detention Center is open by appointment only 8 to 5, Monday through Friday.
Sheriff Holton stated that the RCSO is working extremely hard to continue operating as normal. Patrol, Investigations, and Jail Operations are continuing with best practices in place to mitigate exposures to Sheriff’s staff and the public.
Sheriff Holton said, “The RCSO will continue to operate and provide public safety resources to the community. This pandemic is a new test and different than what we are used to as a community. That said, in every emergency or disaster that has happened in Ravalli County we respond as a community. I have watched as people once again reach out to their friends, families, and neighbors and take care of each other, and I am confident that it will continue.”
City of Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf quickly followed suit on March 20 by issuing the city’s own Emergency Proclamation. The city will be adhering to all directives issued by the State of Montana and by the Ravalli County Incident Management Team.
Meetings of boards, commissions and advisory groups and all other scheduled public meetings and hearings of the City Council are temporarily postponed, unless the meeting is legally required to take action. In such case, the meeting shall be held for the purpose of taking such legally required action only, and may be held via electronic means with audio and/or visual communication.
The proclamation recognizes the Mayor’s authority to administer all affairs and departments of the City, including but not limited to implementing orders for employees to work form home and self-quarantine.
The Mayor has the authority to approve contracts and expenditures in furtherance of implementing emergency services pursuant to this Declaration, and taking all measures deemed necessary to address the emergency, subject to retroactive approval by the City Council.
The Mayor, upon ratification of this Declaration by a 4/5th vote of the Hamilton City Council, is authorized to enter into agreements and contracts, and make purchases and expenditures, without adhering to state and local procuring requirements, contracts, purchases, and expenditures necessary to implement this Declaration and to no others.
The Declaration was deemed effective immediately on March 20, 2020.
The Stevensville Town Council met on March 20 and passed an Emergency Ordinance enacting measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The ordinance was passed on a 3 to 1 vote with Council President Bob Michalson dissenting.
Michalson stated that he believed the ordinance was illegal and that the council cannot by law authorize the mayor to pay claims that are not approved by council.
Mayor Dewey said the town does so regularly each year a couple of times due to holidays.
Michalson said, “That’s gonna change.”
Town attorney Scott Owens stated that the ordinance was legal and that the council could approve the mayor’s payment of bills without council approval and then approve them after-the-fact.
Michalson said he still didn’t believe it was legal.
Mayor Dewey said to Michalson, “I’m asking you to put your hatchet down and put our vendetta against the mayor aside and do something for the good of the town.”
Michalson said there was not a lot of trust in the mayor at the table after the recent contract fiasco. “And now you sit here and ask us to give you the authority to pay claims?”
Councilor Jaime Devlin spoke up, saying, “This is absolutely not the day to do this. We are not children. We are adults in charge of the Town of Stevensville. So let’s act like that and come together and figure something out.” She said having the mayor pay the claims made sense.
Owens assured the council once again that the ordinance was legal in his opinion and the council voted 3 to 1 to approve it.
Effective upon passage the ordinance cancels all Town board, commission, committee and council meetings through April 15, 2020. The Mayor is authorized to extend cancellation of meetings on a week-by-week basis beginning April 15, 2020.
Town Hall offices are closed to the public from March 16 through April 15, 2020. The Mayor is authorized to extend the closure on a week-by-week basis beginning April 15, 2020. Essential services at Town Hall will continue to be provided to customers remotely. The Town temporarily waives all late fees and will not shut off service for delinquent water and sewer accounts through April 15, 2020.
The ordinance approves emergency leave up to an equivalent of two weeks paid leave for all Town employees who are required to be quarantined by the Ravalli County Health Department or a licensed physician due to COVID-19.
The ordinance also authorizes the Mayor to pay all claims and take any other such action authorized by law for public health, safety and welfare of the community, and for the continuity of business, which the Council will approve once the Council resumes regular operations.