By Mira Brody and Bella Butler
GALLATIN COUNTY—On the afternoon of April 17, Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley held a press conference to discuss upcoming reopening planning and measures.
“We want to open up, but we want to open up in a way that we can remain open,” he said.
Both the state and local directives are now in harmony, Kelley said, with the stay-at-home directive scheduled to lift on April 24. Kelley shared a comparison between Montana, which has been proactive in social distancing measures, and South Dakota to show the assumed effectiveness of social distancing. He warned, however, that reemerging into an adjusted form of normalcy has inherent risks. “This remains a serious pandemic even as we are seeing signs of promise here locally.”
The Gallatin County-City Health Department has been operating focus groups comprised of 36-40 business owners to gather intel on how to safely begin to reopen businesses with consideration for the current economic context. Kelley said that reopening will be less like flipping a switch and more like slowly turning a dial.
In an earlier press conference with Gov. Steve Bullock, he explained a similar statewide, phased reopening. “I want to open up Montana as much as any Montanan out there,” said Gov. Bullock, “but we’ll do it responsibly in phases in order to ensure we keep the curve flat and mitigate the risks knowing the risks remain there. If we get this wrong, it’ll hurt us even more.”
On a national governor’s call the day prior, President Trump laid out plans for reopening the economy and informed state governors that each would determine what the best plan of action was for their state. Gov. Bullock said that the Montana Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force, instated on April 15, will study and consider the unique needs of the state’s regions to send Montana forward on a successful path of economic recovery while avoiding a subsequent outbreak in the coming months.
Kelley cited an American Enterprise Institute Report, which outlines four phases of recovery. The health officer located Montana in phase one, which entails slowing the spread of the disease and attempting to reduce deaths. Phase two is the gradual reopening. In order to move into phase two, Kelley said, the state is looking for a 14-day period of consistent decreases in cases. He added that another extremely important piece to reopening is testing availability. “It’s not the cases that we’ve found that I’m so concerned about, it’s the cases we haven’t found.”
Phase three is reached when the state is able to test everyone in need of testing, and the fourth phase is supporting sick individuals in remaining in isolation and preventing further transmission.
Details of what a reopening looks like for Gallatin County and Montana as a whole are still in the works as the situation evolves daily. Metrics that will be considered leading up to and after a reopening will include case numbers, deaths, hospitalizations, percent of positive tests, testing capacity and information gathered during case investigations.
As of the publication time of this article, the state of Montana had 422 confirmed cases, with 142 of those in Gallatin County. There are 233 recovered cases in the state and a ninth death was confirmed from Cascade County this morning. The Governor credits the state’s low rate of infection per capita to our aggressive and early response.