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Nearly two weeks into the second phase of Montana’s reopening plan, Gov. Steve Bullock encouraged people to continue taking action to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

While no timeline is in place to enter the third phase, Bullock commended the state for positioning itself better than others. Montana’s 561 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday afternoon are the least of any state nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have to see where the virus goes,” Bullock said Wednesday on a press call. “Anyone who thinks we’re close to phase three, I think that’s probably optimistic in the near-term.”

Following a three-week stretch of zero positive tests, Gallatin County has added 27 cases since May 27, bringing the county’s total to 176. There are 11 active cases, no active hospitalizations and 164 recoveries. As the state entered phase two of its reopening plan on June 1, Bullock expected cases to increase and still does.

Statewide, there have been 88 cases added since May 26 after none for five straight days leading up to that.

Since June 1, out-of-state visitors have been allowed to enter Montana without quarantining for two weeks, group sizes have been allowed to increase from 10 to 50 and restaurants have increased to 75% capacity. Loosened restrictions have come with increasing positive tests.

“These cases serve as reminder we cannot get complacent,” Bullock said. “If unchecked, this virus will spread quickly and quietly.”

In Gallatin County, Bullock said the majority of active cases are clustered within households or social groups and “there does not appear to be any widespread community transmission occurring at this time.”

There are plans to begin community testing next week in tourism hubs like Livingston and Gardiner. Bullock also mentioned Ennis and Red Lodge among the places that could be included in the following round of community testing.

“These testing events, we have to remember, are just a snapshot in time,” Bullock said. “Yet it will hopefully serve as an early warning system to prevent a major outbreak due to travel into our state.”

On Wednesday, Yellowstone National Park announced 179 employees tested negative for COVID-19 in its second round of surveillance testing, which took place June 4 and 5. Forty-three employees all tested negative in the first round of testing.

The park is in the middle of phase two of its reopening plan, which includes issuing backcountry permits beginning June 15. From June 1, when the park reopened its three Montana entrances, through June 10, vehicle traffic was only 54% of 2019 visitation in the same span. The two Wyoming entrances saw 67% of last year’s vehicle count while Montana’s entrances saw 49% of 2019’s numbers.

The park sampled wastewater systems in Gardiner, Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful between May 18 and 26. Lab results showed no presence of COVID-19. More samples will be taken Saturday and Monday. Surveillance testing will also continue the rest of the summer with a focus on people working directly with the public.

“This proactive testing is the only way for us to detect cases early,” Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly said in a news release, “and respond quickly to any employees who have the virus.”

While the state has ramped up contact tracing and testing, guidelines remain in place recommending physical distancing when possible and wearing a mask in public. Those measures have allowed businesses to stay open, Bullock said, even as the virus lingers.

Though the virus is less likely to spread outdoors, he wants people to plan their activities ahead of time and to keep acting responsibly.

“We can find ways to enjoy the Montana summer we all look forward to each year while doing so in a safe way,” Bullock said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.