HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock said Friday that the closures linked to COVID-19 are likely to remain in place for at least several more weeks.
“I said to someone, ‘I think like most Montanans, I’m over this; I wish the virus was, and the virus isn’t over this,’” he said.
Currently, Bullock’s orders closing public schools and requiring people to stay home except for essential activities are both set to expire April 10. He said leaders have not officially decided to extend them yet, but that residents should expect they will be extended sometime next week.
Bullock said he plans to reassess the orders two weeks at a time, and that he does not want to extend them several months as other states have done. However, he said it remains as important as ever for Montanans to stay home when possible.
“I can’t stress enough that every step that Montanans take now and in the following weeks will make all the difference in managing through this health crisis,” he said.
He said about 10% of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Montana work in the health care sector.
“Staying at home also means keeping our heroes on the front lines as healthy as possible,” he said.
Bullock also announced several steps aimed at making sure families in need have access to food at this time.
“No Montanan should have to worry about putting food on the table for themselves and their families, especially during a global pandemic,” he said.
The state plans to double its supply of food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will be distributed at food banks, food pantries and other emergency providers. They will reduce some of the restrictions on Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – or WIC – allowing more options for food if approved products are unavailable.
Bullock said they will also use flexibility, under the federal CARES Act passed last week, to provide additional benefits for those participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Participants will be able to continue receiving assistance for 12 months, and a three-month limit for some recipients will be waived. Recipients will not have to reapply during the emergency.
Bullock also requested that the USDA provide the maximum food assistance in April and May for families eligible for SNAP. He said the changes to SNAP will help more than 100,000 Montanans.
U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester released statements Friday saying that Montana has been approved for SNAP emergency allocations, meaning recipients will be eligible for maximum benefits.
“This is about delivering relief for families struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, and I will continue working to ensure that Montanans have access to the resources they need during this crisis,” Daines said.
“No Montanan should have to choose between paying medical bills and putting food on the table during a public health crisis, plain and simple,” said Tester. “This waiver is a no-brainer, and I’ll keep fighting to make sure no Montanan goes hungry as we combat the coronavirus outbreak.”
As of Friday afternoon, more than 262 coronavirus cases had been reported in Montana, including 24 hospitalizations and five deaths.
Bullock said Friday that the state does not have an updated number on how many Montanans have recovered from COVID-19. Earlier this week, he reported 32 known to have recovered. He said leaders are looking at the possibility of updating that data more frequently, but that there have been some challenges in aligning the data from the state and various local health departments.
“The greater point is that there are people recovering, and people going back to their daily lives,” said Bullock. “Even during the times of challenge, we have to recognize those moments of optimism.”