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Amid the surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Steve Bullock said Tuesday that Montana’s economy is recovering from the pandemic-induced recession, but he warned that the economy could decline again if Montanans don’t take the virus more seriously.

Bullock announced that the unemployment rate has steadily declined in recent months and, in September, reached 5.3% — below the national average of 7.9%.

“Economic data suggests that our state is on a long-term path toward restoring and expanding economic growth,” he said.

However, he warned that if the number of COVID-19 cases doesn’t decline, businesses could continue to struggle.

“Our economic recovery is at risk by the Montanans and businesses that are not following the restrictions we have in place,” he said.

Bullock attributed the economic recovery, in part, to the Department of Labor and Industry’s distribution of more than $1 billion in unemployment benefits since the pandemic began. He said the benefits produced $1.9 billion in economic activity.

He also said the federal coronavirus relief money, which he used to create dozens of grant programs, was crucial for helping businesses and Montanans.

However, Bullock, who is in a tight race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines, said because the federal relief dollars expire at the end of the year, Montanans are at risk of losing the assistance they’ve relied on. He called on Congress to act on a new relief package.

The Trump administration, the Senate and the House have been working on a relief package but have not reached a deal.

For months, Daines has said he supports “targeted relief.”

“The COVID-19 package before the Senate this week has targeted relief that Montana needs now to help support our schools, workers, small businesses, Tribes and the USPS, as well as more money for testing, vaccines and therapeutic drugs,” Daines said in a statement on Tuesday. “We must get this done for Montana.”

On Tuesday, Montana reported 706 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of active cases to 8,999. Since the pandemic began, Montana has had 24,093 cases with 252 deaths and 14,842 recoveries.

The number of tests coming back positive has also climbed. In October, the positivity rate reached 11%, which generally indicates infection is widespread and more testing should be conducted.

State medical officer Greg Holzman said the high positivity rate isn’t necessarily a sign that testing is lacking but is more an indication of how prevalent the disease is in Montana.

Hospitalizations have also increased in recent weeks. The state reported 360 active hospitalizations on Tuesday.

Of the 10 large hospitals in Montana, one — St. Peters Health — reported on Tuesday that all of its beds were full.

Charlotte Skinner, an emergency room nurse at St. Peter’s Health who Bullock invited to speak during a press call on Tuesday, said health care workers are overwhelmed.

“Our hospitals are reaching a breaking point,” she said. “We are on the brink of seeing a surge capacity like we have never seen before and make no mistake, this will affect our ability to provide the best possible care.”

Skinner urged Montanans to follow mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing guidelines.

“I’m asking you today to stop segregating yourselves into maskers and anti-maskers and to stand with us on the common ground of science and evidence, which is clearly telling us that masking works,” she said. “We must do it consistently, diligently and the majority of us need to participate.”

Despite the surge in cases, Bullock has repeatedly said Montana doesn’t need to implement additional statewide coronavirus restrictions. Instead, he has said Montanans need to follow existing guidelines and areas with high rates of infection should do more.

Last week, he made an additional $5 million in coronavirus relief funds available to local health departments for contract tracing and enforcement efforts aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.

Some local and tribal governments have enacted their own rules in response to the recent surge.

Last Wednesday, Yellowstone County, which has the highest number of cases in the state, implemented new rules that limited most gatherings to 25 people — half the number allowed under statewide guidelines.

However, Flathead County, which is also experiencing a spike, declined last week to impose new restrictions.

“I think there were notions of individual responsibility, but our individual responsibility is actually not only to take care of ourselves and our families but the greater community as well,” Bullock said.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.