By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
HELENA – At a scheduled 4:30 p.m. press conference streamed live on Facebook, Gov. Steve Bullock announced a “stay-at-home” mandate across the state of Montana in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The order, which also affects all “nonessential businesses,” will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on March 28 through at least April 10.
The approach, Bullock said, will reduce the number of COVID-19 infections in Montana and preserve the state’s medical resources, which could be taxed by an excess of hospital visits due to symptoms of the virus. As of press time, Gallatin County accounted for 38 confirmed COVID-19 cases of the 90 total cases in Montana.
“Montanans can leave their homes for essential activities including health and safety, necessary supplies and services, for certain types of work and to take care of others,” the governor said, adding that the terms “stay at home” and “shelter in place” mean essentially the same thing. “Additionally, Montanans can leave their homes for outdoor activities as long as they comply with social distancing requirements.”
Bullock directed businesses and individuals to the Department of Homeland Security website for clarity on what businesses are exempt from the order, however the website directs individual states and locales to make their own requirements.
“Currently, at least 12 states have issued stay-at-home orders thus far,” the DHS website states. “All shut downs include exemptions for ‘essential’ operations. There is no consistency around the scope of what constitutes an essential business or service, forcing these decisions to be made locally.”
A March 19 DHS memorandum includes an extensive list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” that the agency recommends to states and communities nationwide.
“Accordingly,” the memorandum states, “this list is advisory in nature. It is not, nor should it be considered to be, a federal directive or standard in and of itself.”
Among the workers considered “essential,” the memorandum lists construction workers, those supporting grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies and “other retail that sells human food, animal/pet food, and beverage products.”
DHS also lists healthcare workers, public works and law enforcement employees as well as restaurant workers as essential, among many others.
“Restaurants with curbside service and media are considered essential businesses,” Bullock said in the press conference.
As the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus ripple through people, businesses, states and the world at large, Congress is poised to deliver on a more than $2.2 trillion emergency stimulus package, the largest in U.S. history. The effort, Bullock hopes, will buy us some time.
As for the stay-at-home directive, the governor said, not much is changing from the social distancing measures that have been encouraged in Gallatin County for nearly two weeks.
“One of the reasons the federal government is been working on this relief package is to actually address some of the challenges that [COVID-19 has had on] small businesses and large businesses and individuals in our state,” Bullock said. “The question of what happens if we don’t curtail this spread and the long-term impacts on the economy are even much more significant than these actions we’re taking today that in some respects aren’t that much different than what had been asked in the past.”
The governor’s office is directing businesses and individuals with further questions about guidelines and restrictions to the Department of Homeland Security website or to call (800) 755-6672.