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Gov. Steve Bullock announced Friday that Montana is flattening the curve and he is planning a gradual reopening of the state, likely after April 24.

Adjutant General Matthew Quinn, who leads the governor’s coronavirus task force, has developed a plan for a phased reopening based on input from public health experts, emergency responders, health care providers and business leaders.

Bullock said he would release details of the plan next week.

Even if Bullock loosens restrictions on the state, counties, cities and school districts could impose stricter guidelines locally.

“Because we acted early with input from public health and emergency response experts, Montana does have a significantly lower rate of infection per capita than many of our neighbors who didn’t take aggressive action,” Bullock said. “The aggressive actions we took early have made us, relative to many places in this nation, in a much better position.”

As of Friday, Montana had 422 cases of the coronavirus — seven more than the previous day. The state also reported 233 people had recovered, 21 people were hospitalized and 10 people had died from the disease. Two of those deaths were announced Friday, one in Cascade County and the other in Yellowstone County. Gallatin County continued to have the highest number of cases at 142. Of those 142 cases, 134 people had recovered.

Montana’s reopening will be based on several benchmarks, some of which are consistent with the guidelines President Donald Trump released on Thursday.

The benchmarks include a sustained reduction in new cases for 14 days. Bullock said Montana would likely reach this point this weekend.

Montana’s hospitals will need to be able to treat all COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.

The state will also need to be able to test everyone who qualifies for a test and to monitor all active COVID-19 cases. Bullock said testing continues to be a challenge for Montana due to shortages of supplies like swabs and reagents.

He requested 30,000 swabs from the federal government a few weeks ago but has received only 4,000.

“We are working on it, but as every governor will tell you, we need the federal government to work with us, not compete with us,” Bullock said about testing.

Bullock said he would work with businesses and public health experts to ensure they have the capacity to follow requirements for reopening like cleaning more and ensuring people maintain a social distance.

“We all need to understand that this will be a gradual process because once we reopen, we want to be able to stay open,” Bullock said. “And we’ve got to recognize our new normal is going to look a little bit different. The virus isn’t going away. We’re going to have to continue to adapt to how we live with it for the next while.”

There has been some recent pushback to Bullock’s statewide closures, which have strained the economy. Republican leaders in the state Legislature sent Bullock a letter this week saying it was past time to reopen the state. A prayer vigil — called the Liberty Rally — for easing the state’s restrictions is also set for Sunday, according to The Great Falls Tribune.

Bullock said he recognizes the challenges Montanans are facing as a result of his stay-at-home order but said he stands behind his decision.

“I want to open up Montana as much as any Montanan out there,” he said. “That’s why we’ve started the process to do so, but we’ll do it responsibly in phases in order to ensure we keep the curve flattened, so we can mitigate the risk, knowing that the risk is still there.”

Also on Friday, the state Department of Commerce announced a new rental assistance program. Montanans who qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal program, can now receive help with rent and security deposits, according to a Department of Commerce news release.

To qualify for assistance, families must have one child under 18 and have lost significant income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. A family of four must have a monthly income of $4,367 or less and less than $3,000 in savings. Applications and additional information about the program are available on the Department of Commerce website.

Applications will be reviewed within 10 days. Once approved, the Department of Commerce will send rental payments or security deposits to applicants’ landlords.

Money for the new relief program will come from federal dollars the Department of Commerce receives for emergency housing assistance.

The department has $430,000 to spend on its new rental assistance program. Additional state or federal dollars may become available and could enable the department to help to families that don’t qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The new program is a result of a directive Bullock issued Monday to provide rental assistance to those facing financial hardship due to COVID-19. Bullock previously suspended evictions, foreclosures and utility cutoffs for the duration of the state’s stay-at-home order, which is set to end April 24.

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