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Gov. Steve Bullock announced Thursday that Montana counties can hold the November general election by mail.

If counties decide to hold a mail-ballot election, ballots would be mailed on Oct. 9 and return postage would be provided. Voters would still be able to vote in-person.

Bullock allowed counties to hold a mail-ballot primary election in June. Ultimately, all 56 counties used mail ballots for the primary, which had record turnout.

“It only makes sense that we start preparing now to ensure no Montanans will have to choose between their vote and their health,” Bullock said. “They didn’t have to in June and they shouldn’t have to in November.”

Bullock announced the change to the election during a press call on Thursday where he also announced a $20-million testing plan for the Montana University System and said surveillance testing events will resume this weekend.

County election officials and the Montana Association of Counties asked Bullock in July to let them choose to conduct a mail-ballot election in November.

They said they were worried large crowds might gather at polling places, it could be difficult to find election workers and the coronavirus could make some polling spots, like schools, unavailable.

They asked Bullock to make a decision about the November election by Monday to give them adequate time to prepare.

Bullock said he chose to fulfill local officials’ request based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated in-person voting could increase transmission of the virus and because many election workers are older and, therefore, more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Gallatin County Commission will likely decide whether to hold a mail-ballot election locally at a meeting in a couple of weeks, according to election manager Casey Hayes.

Ballots for the Nov. 3 election will be available beginning Oct. 2 at county election offices and will remain available until polls close on Election Day.

Also on Thursday, Bullock also directed up to $20 million from the $1.25 billion Montana received in federal coronavirus relief money to the Montana University System for testing work.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said schools wouldn’t test all students when they return to campus as some universities are planning.

Instead, they will prioritize rapidly testing those who have COVID-19 symptoms and hiring additional staff to conduct contact tracing, so close contacts can be notified quickly. They will then work to isolate and quarantine as needed to limit the spread of the virus.

Schools will also conduct surveillance testing for groups at high risk of transmitting the virus.

Christian emphasized that much of the work to limit the virus’ spread has to come from students who will be asked to conduct daily health screenings, wear masks, wash their hands regularly, practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings.

“That personal responsibility is one of the key ingredients of how we keep students safe on campus,” Christian said.

As Montana expands testing in the university system, the state is also restarting its general surveillance testing efforts with an event in Park County on Sunday. Madison County will then have a testing event on Wednesday.

In July, Bullock halted the surveillance testing program after a backlog at Quest Diagnostics, the private lab the state used, meant test results were delayed for weeks. Montana is now working with a new lab, Mako Medical, and with Montana State University to process tests from surveillance testing events.

Last week, Bullock said he would work with officials in nine hotspot counties — including Gallatin County — to understand what, if any, additional restrictions were needed to limit transmission of the virus.

On Thursday, he said more restrictions aren’t needed at this time. However, he said officials are concerned that individuals and businesses aren’t following existing rules, such as quarantining or isolating when directed to do so by local health departments.

“When we do take it seriously, we flatten the curve,” Bullock said.

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