Masks Downtown

A couple takes a last sip of their coffee before pulling up their masks as they enter Heyday on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in downtown Bozeman.

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Gov. Steve Bullock applauded some counties on Tuesday for implementing additional restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Montana and said he would make state resources and federal coronavirus relief dollars available to local officials to help them better enforce existing health rules.

Bullock’s announcement came as Montana has reported hundreds of new COVID-19 cases each day for the last few weeks. The state added 530 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the total number of active cases statewide to 7,774.

Despite the increase in COVID-19 cases, Bullock has repeatedly declined to impose new statewide restrictions. Instead, he has called on local and tribal governments to implement their own rules.

On Tuesday, he said the state now plans to provide local governments with legal resources, educational materials and federal coronavirus relief dollars, if necessary, to pay for enforcement-related work.

“There’s no expectation that every violation of a health order will be or should be remedied through enforcement, but our public health officials will find themselves helpless to combat the virus if they don’t receive the support that Montana law guarantees them,” Bullock said.

State medical officer Dr. Greg Holzman said the Centers for Disease Control concluded that Arizona reduced its number of new cases after increasing enforcement and adding restrictions in June.

“We have the data. We don’t really need to wait and see it happen here and then respond,” Holzman said. “Let’s learn from those around us.”

In the press conference Tuesday, Bullock also commended health officer John Felton for recently announcing new restrictions in Yellowstone County, which is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Beginning Wednesday, most local gatherings will be limited to 25 people, half the number allowed under statewide rules.

“Reducing crowd size for a short amount of time will make an immense difference in the long run,” Bullock said. “…By focusing on limiting the size of gathering in Yellowstone County and reducing the spread, our businesses certainly have a better shot of staying open (and) our kids have a greater likelihood of maintaining their education in the classroom.”

Bullock also said he supports the work toward new restrictions in Flathead County, where the health department has asked the health board to authorize new rules by early November if the number of new cases doesn’t rapidly decline over the next few weeks.

Gallatin County is not among the counties looking to add restrictions.

However, COVID-19 cases have increased locally in recent weeks. The county added 41 cases Tuesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 228 and the total number of active hospitalizations to five. The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases is 44.4.

To date, 1,795 residents have recovered from the disease and four have died.

Montana’s chief epidemiologist Jim Murphy said the recent increase in COVID-19 cases statewide stems, in part, from congregate settings such as schools and correctional facilities and from large gatherings where attendees didn’t wear masks or stay six feet apart.

As Montana’s cases have climbed, so has the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. In recent weeks, the positivity rate surpassed 10%, which is generally an indication that infection is widespread and that more testing should be conducted.

However, Murphy said the high positivity rate is partially a result of Montana’s testing strategy, which is to focus testing on those who are more likely to be positive — close contacts of known cases and residents of congregate living facilities.

Hospitalizations are also climbing across Montana. They reached 294 on Tuesday.

The spike in hospitalizations has strained the state’s health care system. Three of Montana’s largest hospitals — Community Medical Center in Missoula, St. James Health Care in Butte and St. Peter’s Health in Helena — reported Tuesday that at least 90% of their inpatient beds are full. Two of the state’s 49 critical access hospitals — Cabinet Peaks Medical Center and Glendive Medical Center — are at capacity.

“We should all be concerned if we see a time where hospitals become too full to care those who require care,” Bullock said.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at or at 582-2648.