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Gov. Steve Bullock announced Wednesday a new loan deferment program for businesses affected by COVID-19, but first reminded Montanans that the virus is still a threat.

Montana has seen a steady increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the end of May, after the number had largely plateaued during a statewide lockdown. Many states around the country are also experiencing a surge.

On Wednesday, Montana added 18 new cases, the largest increase in a single day since April 8. The state now counts 630 cases, 72 of which are active. Another person died of the virus on Tuesday in Big Horn County, bringing total deaths to 20.

Bullock and public health officials have said in the past the number of cases would rise as restrictions on businesses and public gathering places are lifted. Bullock said Wednesday that trend is likely to continue.

“It is expected that we will see more positive cases as we reopen the state and do additional testing,” Bullock said.

Bullock said it’s important to note that Montana still has the lowest number of positive cases, the lowest number of hospitalizations and the lowest deaths per capita in the Lower 48 states.

Gallatin County has also seen a steady increase in cases and confirmed four more on Wednesday. The county now has a total of 194 cases. Of those, 181 patients have recovered.

According to the health department, the cases are in Gallatin Valley and the Big Sky area, and were contracted through a combination of community transmission, out-of-state travel and contact to known cases.

Bullock said Gallatin, Big Horn and Yellowstone counties have seen clusters of cases that are tied to large families or specific social gatherings. He said these counties are also seeing community transmission, meaning the source of some cases is unknown.

Bullock said the state is advising that all close contacts of a confirmed patient are tested, even if they’re asymptomatic. He said a recent spike in cases in Big Horn County was found through community testing of asymptomatic people, and said that shows any place in Montana is still vulnerable to an outbreak.

“The experience of Big Horn County should be instructive to all of us,” Bullock said.

Bullock urged people to continue to wear masks in public when physical distancing is impractical. He said masks shouldn’t be a political issue, and encouraged Montanans to make face coverings normal “so that when visitors come to our state, they know this the Montana way and they should follow suit.”

Bullock commended Big Horn County officials for imposing additional restrictions on top of statewide mandates after its number of cases increased, and said other counties may need to consider that if their case numbers spike. The county, with 49 overall cases, is requiring businesses check employees’ temperatures, have employees wear masks and offer masks to patrons.

Businesses statewide are still subject to sanitation requirements and limited capacity during phase two. Bullock announced a new loan deferment program for businesses to help make up for losses incurred due to the pandemic.

The program will receive $125 million from the $1.25 billion Montana received through the federal Coronavirus Assistance, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Bullock said $25 million of the $125 million will be specifically for hotels and restaurants.

The program will use coronavirus relief funds to provide payments that borrowers owe to participating lenders to cover interest payments for six to 12 months, up to $150,000. The program could help defer between 5,000 and 10,000 loans and “free up capital to bring stability for businesses and other entities in the long term,” according to a news release.

To be eligible, a borrower must have experienced a 25% reduction in gross revenue directly related to COVID-19 and not have access to 12 months of capital from any source.

Bullock said he also directed $530,000 of CARES Act money to the Department of Commerce to promote the U.S. Census through Oct. 31. He said out of the states with the lowest response rate for the census, Montana is eighth from the bottom.

“This funding will support the state over the long term and ensure we do everything we can to get a complete count and our fair share of federal funding over the next decade,” Bullock said.

As of June 16, the state had distributed about $28.6 million of that CARES Act money through the Montana Coronavirus Relief Fund grant programs. Gallatin County has seen the most in grant money of any county at about $4.6 million.

“Through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, we’ve been able to consider and begin meeting the needs across all sectors of the economy and in all corners of the state,” Bullock said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.