Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday that Montana will enter the first phase of a staggered reopening of the state in the coming days, which includes lifting a statewide stay-at-home order and some of the restrictions that closed schools, restaurants, bars, retail stores and more.

Those measures were taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened 439 and killed 14 Montanans since the first cases were diagnosed here nearly six weeks ago. The number of new cases added each day has been on a downward trajectory over the last two weeks. That was one of the metrics, along with sufficient testing ability and hospital capacity, that Bullock said he needed to see to start a phased reopening.

While the stay-at-home order that took effect March 28, as well the previous closure of places where people congregated, were successful in flatting case growth, they have also also deadened Montana’s economy. More than 76,000 people have filed claims for unemployment and by last Friday more than $1.47 billion in loans had been made to small businesses in the state under the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Bullock said that because Montana acted aggressively and early compared to other states in the country in shutting things down, it is now able to reopen earlier. He acknowledged that the state will continue to add cases under a phased-in reopening and it’s not without risks, but that Montanans are ready to move into the beginning of a “new normal.”

“I recognize that there are some folks in our state that would love to keep everything shut down until there’s a vaccine or until the virus goes away. But the ‘why now’ is because Montanans can take their own pride in what Montanans have as a community have done together,” Bullock said, pointing out the state ranks near the bottom in cases per capita and hospitalizations per capita.

“That’s the case because we acted both aggressively and we acted collectively, meaning that Montanans all across the state took this seriously. I know that Montanans are hurting. I do know that we do need to figure out ways to get to what a new normal might look like, and these are those measured steps to do so.”

The statewide stay-at-home order lifts Sunday for individuals and Monday for nonessential businesses. Even with fewer restrictions, things will still look much different.

Churches and other places of worship can open Sunday with limited capacity. Gatherings of more than 10 should be avoided where social distancing measures cannot be followed.

The following day, Monday, retail businesses can open with reduced capacity and under measures to ensure physical distancing. For other businesses, employees who still can work from home should continue to do so. People who work on-site in any business should be screened for symptoms.

Employers must make accommodations for employees who are at risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19 or have family members at risk. If accommodations are made but an employee still does not return to work, they may lose eligibility for unemployment insurance. If an employer does not follow guidelines or address the needs of those who are vulnerable, those workers are still eligible for unemployment.

Bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries and casinos can open after May 4 if they adhere to strict physical distancing guidelines and reduce capacity. Breweries have always had an 8 p.m. closing time, and now bars, restaurants and casinos must shut down by 11:30 p.m.

Starting May 7, schools will have the option to return to in-classroom teaching. Local districts can make their own choices about bringing back students, and some around the state have already said they don’t plan to this year. If schools reopen, guidance from the governor’s office suggests a mix of in-person and remote learning, as well as graduations that meet social distancing requirements.

Places like salons and tattoo parlors may open, but customers must be screened for symptoms. People need to wear face masks when possible and stations must be 6 feet apart.

Gyms, pools and hot springs will remain closed. So will movie theaters, performance theaters, concert halls, bowling alleys, bingo halls and music halls.

In the first phase, all vulnerable people should continue to stay at home. That includes those over the age of 65 or anyone with underlying health conditions. Visitors are still banned from nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Anyone in public should maximize their physical distance from others, and gatherings of groups of more than 10 are discouraged if there’s not space to maintain social distancing. People should wear non-medical masks and practice good hygiene.

Some limited opening of campgrounds, playgrounds and other group-use facilities can happen, at the discretion of local and state managers.

While the state is taking these actions, local counties and boards of health can choose to enact their own more strict rules. Other measures, such as a pause on evictions and foreclosures, are still in place until their expiration dates.

Bullock said there’s no clear timeline or metrics on when the state could move to a second phase of reopening, where more businesses could resume operations and gatherings could reach sizes of up to 50 people. In the third phase, there will be no limits on the size of groups that can gather, and vulnerable populations can resume public interactions but still need to take precautions. Bullock also said he’s also monitoring metrics in the case the state loses the progress its made.

The decision Wednesday, Bullock said, was informed by a variety of data, modeling and briefings from public health experts, though he generally concentrated on local information. 

“I’m primarily focusing on Montana’s number of positive cases and how many new cases we have each week, hospitalization numbers and available beds, testing capacity and how much personal protective equipment and other supplies we have available,” Bullock said.

While holding a telephone town hall with Montanans after his press conference, Bullock fielded questions from people concerned about what reopening the state might mean in terms of additional people getting sick and the stress tourists could bring if they flock to the state as summer approaches. While saying additional cases are unavoidable, Bullock he also recognized the tourism industry, a major economic driver in Montana, is hurting.

This first phase of reopening isn’t yet the time to allow others to come into our state,” Bullock told reporters earlier, saying that the directive for people coming into Montana for non-work related purposes still requires self-quarantining for 14 days.

While sufficient testing is part of Bullock’s requirements for reopening, he said Wednesday “we’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to tests and testing supplies.”

While the state cannot test every Montana, the governor is encouraging health care providers to test everyone with symptoms. The state will also work with providers and public health officers to address hot spots that may arise.

The state can also move toward more rapid testing as it gains capacity with the 15 Abbott machines, which can produce results in about 15 minutes. Half of those machines are already in communities, though sufficient supplies to run them are still needed.

“Just as Montanans shouldn’t say ‘mission accomplished,’ there’s nobody at the state level saying ‘mission accomplished.’ What they’re saying is we’re now entering a different phase that also brings a different and unique set of challenges,” Bullock said.