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Gov. Steve Bullock stood by his efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 after Montana Republican leadership claimed Bullock’s response to the pandemic sent the state’s economy into a free fall and, in some cases, stepped outside of constitutional bounds.

In a Tuesday press conference, Bullock said he will continue his statewide order for people to stay home at least through April 24. He said his decisions have been guided by data and science, “not politics.”

“The measures we’ve been taking so far are exactly doing what we’d hope for,” Bullock said. “We are slowing the spread.”

Bullock spoke hours after GOP leadership from both the state Senate and House sent a letter to the governor criticizing many of his actions.

“It is past time to rethink your response to COVID-19 as it pertains to the citizens of Montana and implement more strategic measures in an effort to re-engage our economy once again,” they wrote.

Montana’s 1 million residents are more than two weeks into a stay-at-home order. The directive, which includes exceptions for essential activities and outdoor recreation, is one of many the governor has signed.

The GOP letter said getting Montanans back to work could start in counties with either no COVID-19 cases or those without cases “as of late.” The letter said hotspots for the illness like Gallatin County could remain under special orders with more restrictions.

The letter also said Montana should follow Florida’s example by providing specific directives to those more at risk of a serious illness if they contract COVID-19, like seniors or people with chronic health conditions.

The letter was signed by Senate President Scott Sales of Bozeman, Senate President Pro-Tem Mark Blasdel of Kalispell and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas of Stevensville. On the House side, the letter included signatures from Speaker of the House Greg Hertz from Polson, Speaker Pro-Tem Wylie Galt of Martinsdale and House Majority Leader Brad Tschida of Missoula.

Bullock said Tuesday there’s not enough information yet to give a specific date for when things could begin to reopen.

He said at some point there may be a withdrawal of restrictions on a county-by-county level, but not yet. He also said Florida’s rate of infection of the disease is higher than Montana’s.

Bullock didn’t define a plan for how reopening businesses could happen, other than to say it would be gradual.

He said even once case numbers level, people will still be at risk of the disease until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine. Bullock said he doesn’t know which social distancing measures may stick around longer than others.

“We have to see what’s happened on the ground and then take those steps going forward,” Bullock said.

The state reported five new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. It has a total of 399 cases. Of those, 138 cases came from Gallatin County.

So far, seven people have died from the virus in Montana.

The Republican leadership wrote Tuesday that all Montanans should be advised to “keep playing it safe” and follow social distancing recommendations. They also offered a list of recommendations for the governor.

They said Bullock’s order arbitrarily defined what constitutes essential and caused small private sector businesses to close, some potentially forever.

They criticized Bullock’s temporary stay on evictions, foreclosures and non-payment of some utilities at this time as “without constitutional or statutory basis.” They said while the state and federal government increased services for people who are unemployed through the pandemic, those stays may encourage some to forgo paying things like rent due to misinformation.

They also took issue with the fact many government offices remain open and that there doesn’t appear to be government layoffs at this time. They said that indicates the governor believes every state agency is essential to the sustenance of life and they disagree.

“If businesses remain closed, income and property taxes, fees and other collections will plummet, causing widespread and catastrophic results to people employed in both the public and private sectors,” the letter said. “Montanans are helping their neighbors and they don’t need unconstitutional commands.”

Bullock said as of Tuesday afternoon he hadn’t responded to the letter. He said his directives have been in line with the constitution’s design and state statutes that “the Legislature is responsible for.”

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

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