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Task force presents guidance on coronavirus relief spending

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HELENA – A task force appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock to make recommendations for how the state should spend $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding presented its guidance Friday, starting with immediate grants for “safety net” services such as food banks and homeless shelters along with rent and mortgage assistance for individuals and nonprofits.

The 20-member Coronavirus Relief Fund Advisory Council did not make specific monetary recommendations but outlined spending priorities to aid individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations, said council chairman Larry Simkins with The Washington Cos.

The advisory council recommended prioritizing funding based on those who are affected the most, those who did not receive funding elsewhere and deploying the funding quickly through existing channels such as economic development agencies, lending institutions or state programs, the report said.

Bullock did not say when he would announce his spending decisions.

“I’ll be consulting these recommendations as well as my budget staff and other state and local agencies as we get some of the money out both thoughtfully and to address some immediate needs,” Bullock said.

On Wednesday Bullock set aside $5 million for grants to local health departments and other agencies to boost contact tracing and help businesses create plans to safely reopen. He earlier created a fund for rent and mortgage assistance after landlords pushed back on a directive that prohibited evictions and late payment fees while people were under stay-at-home directives.

The council also recommended offering direct grants to businesses and nonprofits, with priority given to those that have been subject to statewide closure. They also recommended grants for nonprofits that have been hurt by the pandemic or whose mission is to serve people affected by the pandemic.

As the economic recovery continues, the council recommended the state offer forgivable or low- to zero-interest loans or state-backed lines of credit to businesses.

The council’s tourism subcommittee recommended deploying funds in the coming weeks and months as businesses that rely on tourism are able to reopen, with priority being given to those that have been closed or did not receive other federal coronavirus relief funding.

The council and Bullock both said some money would be held back for unforeseen effects of the pandemic. The current guidelines require the money be spent by Dec. 31 or be returned to the federal government.

Montana’s restaurants, bars, breweries and casinos will be allowed to reopen Monday, with reduced capacity and social distancing requirements. They must close by 11:30 p.m.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.

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