Keeping with the theme of a COVID-19 response that shifts responsibility from government mandates to individuals, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Wednesday a new directive that lifts restrictions on hours and capacity of bars, restaurants and casinos.
“Many of the folks we talked to were very frustrated. They were loud and clear: They feel the layers of existing directives are too complex, confusing and difficult to implement,” Gianforte said about his decision to roll back the restrictions at Wednesday afternoon press conference.
Before taking any action Gianforte said he met with medical experts and businesses leaders and “took the time to get this right.”
The new directive will also remove the limit on gatherings and will take effect Friday morning, Gianforte said. His new order does not override local directives already in place.
Last week Gianforte said he will rescind the statewide mask mandate when vaccine distribution is ramped up and the legislature proposes liability legislation that protects businesses from being sued as a result of possible COVID-19 exposure.
As of Wednesday, the state reported 87,653 cases of the virus, 1,069 deaths and 199 active hospitalizations, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“The trend lines are encouraging. But this doesn’t account for the indirect health impacts: increased cases of suicide, greater drug use and abuse and more cases of domestic violence and child abuse. It also doesn’t account for the severe economic impact,” Gianforte said.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry reported in October that it had paid out $1 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 107,000 Montanans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic
To help address the indirect health impacts Gianforte said in his budget proposal that he wants to dedicate an additional $23.5 million for substance abuse and prevention.
Gianforte said as of Tuesday 42,000 people have received their first dose of the vaccine, about half of which took place last week.
The state is expecting 6,400 doses of Moderna this week and next week is expecting 13,500 first doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine. It also has about 20,000 second doses from Moderna and Pfizer coming, General Matt Quinn, executive director of Governor Gianforte’s COVID-19 Task Force.
As the state plans to transition to Phase 1B of it’s vaccination plan, which Gianforte updated last week to include all Montanan’s more than 70 and those ages 16-69 with underlying health conditions he said the the Department of Public Health and Human Services reached out to 12 counties, 11 of which reported they were ready to move to phase 1B.
DPHHS has communicated to jurisdictions to prepare to be ready to move to phase 1B the week of Jan. 18, Gianforte said.
“We are trying to minimize deaths … These are incredibly difficult decisions,” Gianforte said about the decision to update his vaccination plan, which has received some criticism for bumping essential workers like teachers out of phase 1B.
In a meeting with Walgreens executives Gianforte said he was told it is on target to provide first doses of the vaccine to 97% of the long-term care population by the end of January.
Montana is ninth in the country in vaccine distribution, Gianforte said.
The Trump administration issued new guidelines Tuesday that expands vaccine eligibility to everyone age 65 and older and everyone 65 and younger with an underlying condition, like diabetes. Because 75% of the deaths in Montana were people 70 and older the state will not lower its age requirement in phase 1B to 65, Quinn said.
“I’m encouraged by the vaccine distribution we have had and the decline in new cases and hospitalization,” Gianforte said, but added, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”