By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
HELENA – At a Jan. 13 press conference, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced that Montana will be moving into Phase 1B of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and lifted some business restrictions related to curbing the spread of the virus.
Phase 1B will begin being distributed starting the week of Jan. 18 and includes those ages 70-plus as well as those ages 16-69 who have specific health conditions. Gianforte says Montana is “ahead of the curve,” ranking 9th in country-wide vaccine distribution and he says, with guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services, his plan’s primary focus will be protecting those who are most vulnerable.
In addition, he promises to have 97 percent of long term care facilities vaccinated by the end of January. Gianforte spoke also of the non-health related impacts of the pandemic, including suicides, increase drug use, domestic violence and economic devastation, particularly for small businesses.
“Improving our response to the pandemic has been my top priority,” Gianforte said. “After being elected, I set up the COVID-19 task force, which includes medical professionals and small business owners among others. I charged it with examining our state’s response: what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what we should do differently.”
After reviewing feedback from small business owners, nonprofit organizations and civic leaders, the COVID-19 task force says that most feedback was on the confusing and restrictive nature of current directives. To solve this, effective Friday, Jan. 15, the Governor is repealing directives that restrict hours of operation and capacity in restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos. He says business should still follow industry best practices to prevent the spread of the virus, including any local health directives still in place.
“I look forward to a day when we can all take off our masks, throw them in the trash and get on with our lives in a safe manner,” Gianforte said. “Until we get there, I continue to choose to wear a mask and I encourage others to do the same.”
The Gallatin County Health Board’s local emergency rule is still in effect, which limits the capacity of bars, restaurants, gyms and fitness centers, and places of assembly to 50 percent and hours of operation to 10 p.m. There is also a 25-person limit for most gatherings, both indoors and outdoors, regardless of the ability to physically distance.
“On a day when we are announcing two additional COVID-19 deaths in Gallatin County, it is important to remember that in Montana, local boards of health have a duty under state law to take actions to protect the public health in their community,” said Health Officer Matt Kelley in a Jan. 13 statement in response to Gianforte’s press conference. “In Gallatin County, the board of health has passed an emergency rule related to hours of operation and capacity limits for certain businesses, including bars, restaurants and gyms. The bottom line is that board’s actions remain in effect in Gallatin County.”
Kelley says he expects businesses and individuals to continue to comply with county rules.
Today, Jan. 13, the Health Department reported 79 new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 578 active cases, nine current hospitalizations and 41 total deaths from the virus.