Gov. Bullock

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on March 12 announced an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Montana in response to the coronavirus.

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Monday the state doesn’t have a timeline for when things could begin to tilt back toward life as people knew it before COVID-19. He said in the meantime, the state’s economy will continue to struggle.

During a tele-town hall Monday, Bullock said it’s hard to know when businesses will begin to reopen and he said when they do, “things might look a little bit different.”

“I don’t think that we’ll get to the point anytime in the immediate future where there’s just simply no more cases,” Bullock said. “It’s just how can we manage the fact that this nasty virus is still out there and make it least impactful for Montanans.”

The town hall took place the week before public health officials predict Montana will see its peak in cases and more than two weeks after the governor first ordered the state’s residents to stay home.

As of Monday afternoon, the state knew of 394 cases of the illness in Montana. Of those, 138 were in Gallatin County.

Bullock answered questions from callers for nearly an hour.

Some calls came from health care providers asking for more state support for wages or more personal protective equipment. Bullock said the state is still struggling to get the equipment Montana providers have asked for, either through the federal government’s stockpile or by going directly to private suppliers.

Several people asked what it would take for the governor to begin to step back his directives in response to the novel coronavirus.

Bullock said he plans to continue to decide what rules he’ll keep in place in response to the global pandemic in two-week periods, adding he doesn’t want to try to predict beyond that.

The governor’s directives have included requiring schools to operate through online classes and stopping businesses deemed nonessential from being a gathering spot in the effort to slow the spread of the disease.

Public health experts and governments have warned there could be a series of waves with this illness, which still doesn’t have a vaccine. Bullock said Monday he wants to avoid additional outbreaks of the virus once things begin to reopen.

He said that could mean discouraging large groups from gathering once a stay-at-home order is lifted. The state will also have to make sure it has the resources to continue tracing the disease through testing even after its spread has slowed, Bullock said.

A caller from Whitefish asked if there was a list of actions Bullock would take to walk the state back to normality and what would have to happen for that to begin.

Bullock didn’t define one plan and said he wants to do what’s “unique and best for Montana.” He said there could be a lot of elements that may lead to an ease in restrictions.

“Everything from a decline of cases in a two-week period or the availability of having even greater amounts of testing,” Bullock said.

He said in the meantime, he knows that leaves a lot of people in a vulnerable position, repeating this crisis is both about public health and its impact on the economy.

During the call, Bullock said the state is preparing to provide emergency rental assistance to some who need help making ends meet during the pandemic through a new directive.

His office announced the directive in a news release after the call. The directive follows the state’s temporary suspension of certain evictions, foreclosures and service disconnections.

But what that assistance will look like is still uncertain. The Department of Commerce will announce details on eligibility and the application process on or before April 17, according to the governor’s office.

The directive is due to end April 24, which matches the timeline for the state’s existing orders.

“For families that can’t make their housing payment right now because they’ve lost income due to COVID-19, this directive will help prevent a months-long rent backlog from coming due all at once,” Bullock said in the release.

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Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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