Bullock

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announces the formation of a coronavirus task force.

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock Tuesday extended closures of schools and places to dine-in and added new restrictions limiting how many people can gather outside of homes, saying the state expects to see an increase in novel coronavirus cases — including those contracted in-state.

Bullock announced during a press conference that public schools and dine-in service at places to eat and drink must remain closed through April 10. He said some people have questioned why he hasn’t closed schools for the rest of the year or if the two-week extension means he thinks life will “be back to normal” then.

“I don’t think it would be wise or serve in the best interest of Montanans at this time to make decisions that will have finality for what Montana might look like eight or 10 weeks down the road,” Bullock said.

Bullock also said he was issuing a directive prohibiting “non-essential” social and recreational gatherings of more than 10 people if they’re outside of a residence and can’t stay at least 6 feet apart. Bullock said at this time the state wasn’t defining nonessential.

The public health order is enforceable by county attorneys and preempts all less restrictive county health ordinances, according to the state.

Retail businesses now have until March 28 to establish and enforce policies to ensure customers remain at least 6 feet apart. That doesn’t apply to grocery, health care, medical or pharmacy services, though a state release encouraged those facilities to comply with the protocols when possible.

At this point the state is not requiring day care providers to close.

“Many Montanans continue to provide valuable, essential services and they need access to child care,” Bullock said. He added the state continues to recommend those still open follow social distancing and safety practices.

Bullock also issued a directive that allows local governments to suspend certain office hours typically required by state law when local governments can’t safely operate within social distancing guidelines.

As of Tuesday evening, Montana had 51 cases of coronavirus, up from 45 the day before.

“While I wish it were otherwise, I certainly expect those numbers to be increasing as some community spread occurs and as further testing is done,” Bullock said.

Gallatin County continues to have the highest recorded number of cases in Montana, with 19 people diagnosed with the disease as of Tuesday. Nine of those were recorded in the last two days.

In a Tuesday news release, county officials said they would no longer provide details about each individual case “unless we see an immediate public health need.” According to the release, some of the county’s new patients had been in close contact to other known cases.

“We expect future cases to consist of community transmission, close contact, and travel related history,” according to the release.

In a statement, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said anyone identified as a close contact to a known case needs to self-quarantine and contact their primary care doctor if they develop symptoms.

The expectation of more cases contracted within Montana is a change in tone. The majority of the state’s known cases have previously involved people who recently traveled and likely picked it up elsewhere. Gallatin County officials have said they believe four cases recorded over the weekend developed locally.

Researchers are still trying to understand the virus’ mortality rate and how fast it spreads.

Public health officials have continued to preach that Montana’s best chance to avoid overloading its health system is to slow the virus’ spread.

Bullock continued to hit hard the message the best way to do that is for people to limit contact with others. That includes staying 6 feet apart, working from home when possible and avoiding large groups.

“There are concepts that we are rapidly introducing throughout this pandemic that were foreign to most of us just a week ago,” Bullock said.

Bullock said while the threat of a serious illness with coronavirus is greatest for seniors and those with existing medical conditions, “the obligation to control this spread is on each and every one of us each and every day.”

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