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Saturday marked 50 days since Gov. Steve Bullock asked Montanans to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

That order was lifted April 26, but everyday life is still restricted in some ways and many continue to stay home voluntarily.

Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, said the stay-at-home order was a pivotal moment. He said he talked with Bullock a few days before it was announced and that it was a difficult choice for him to make.

“But I think it was the right decision and may have been the single most important decision made,” Kelley said.

Montana was relatively early in shutting down compared to other states. Some people have pushed back against subsequent restrictions on businesses or have advocated for the restrictions to be lifted sooner. Kelley said he often gets asked why reopening can’t happen at a faster pace, but just a month ago, he was getting asked why Gallatin County had so many cases.

Gallatin County quickly surpassed other counties in confirmed cases, and at one point had 40% of all cases in the state. Gallatin County has added only three cases in the last three weeks.

Kelley has said the COVID-19 pandemic did not come with a set playbook and there have been some learning experiences along the way. For example, when it became clear that there was a global shortage of personal protective equipment, Kelley said the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile should have been able step in to fill that need. It didn’t.

“I think we’re going to think twice before we rely on the Strategic National Stockpile for (personal protective equipment),” Kelley said. “Certainly, headed through the next year, we will keep our own cache.”

However, Kelley said it isn’t feasible for the county health department to acquire enough equipment to supply all health care providers in the area. They should stock up, as well, he said.

Kelley said the biggest lesson so far in this pandemic has been that the U.S. was not at all prepared to carry out widespread testing for disease. Kelley pointed to the first person in Bozeman who was tested for the virus in early February. The specimen had to be sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lab in Atlanta and it took five days to get the results.

Testing has evolved dramatically since then. Bozeman Health can now run tests onsite, but Kelley said that slow start undoubtedly fueled the spread of disease and led to more deaths. Even as testing ramped up, officials and providers still struggled to obtain the supplies needed to collect specimens. Kelley said coordination of widespread testing needed to happen at the federal level.

“For a country of this size and this wealth, there’s no reason we should be scrambling to get swabs,” Kelley said.

Kelley stands behind the early actions taken locally and by Bullock, saying they kept Montana’s number of cases low compared to neighboring states. Montana added four cases Friday for a total of 466 cases with 16 deaths. South Dakota now has 3,792 cases, added 60 cases Friday and has had 43 deaths.

Here’s a look back at what the last 50 days in Montana have looked like:

• Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive requiring Montanans to stay home that went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on March 28. Local and state officials had been taking steps in this direction for some time. Bullock declared a state of emergency on March 12, the day before officials confirmed the first four COVID-19 cases in the state. Public schools were closed March 15. Bullock asked Montanans who had traveled internationally to self-quarantine starting on March 19.

• Kelley said that the number of new cases in Gallatin County began to plateau exactly 14 days after the stay-at-home order went into place, which is the same amount of time it can take for a person to become symptomatic. It also led to a massive increase in unemployment claims.

• Kelley took local action and ordered the closure of dine-in services at bars and restaurants on March 16. The Gallatin City-County Board of Health expanded those restrictions to include gyms, theaters and other gathering places on March 17. A statewide closure of bars and restaurants went into place March 20.

• On March 20, Montana saw its first death due to COVID-19.

• Closures were extended every few weeks by the governor’s office and local health department.

• Between March 15 and April 25, more than 96,000 Montanans filed for unemployment.

• Local Jewish leaders provided Passover-to-go to those celebrating alone at home. Children searched for paper Easter eggs taped to windows. Religious services were livestreamed on Facebook.

• On April 22, Bullock announced a phased reopening plan and that the stay-at-home order would be lifted on April 26. Some businesses would be allowed to begin reopening on April 27, while others were to stay closed indefinitely. Gallatin County officials voted to follow suit. Administrators decided to keep Bozeman Public Schools closed, although the plan allowed for them to open.

• Gallatin County saw its first, and so far only, death due to COVID-19 on April 28.

• On May 15, gyms, theaters and museums were allowed to reopen. New unemployment numbers show that claims dropped as restrictions on businesses were lifted.

Although the number of cases in Montana has largely leveled off and employees are going back to work, Kelley said that the virus remains present and highly contagious. He said there’s more work to do.

“We remain cognizant that we have a long way to go and that we are not out of the wood yet,” Kelley said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at or at 582-2607.