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Starting Monday, April 28, stay-at -home restrictions regarding COVID-19 were somewhat lifted, by Governor Steve Bullock, ending a month-long closure of most Montana businesses.

He outlined three phases to his re-opening plan, saying that how long the first phase will last is unknown, and he will make that decision based upon the numbers. The change allowed for church services with some social distancing restraints.

Banks re-started accepting applications from Montana businesses for the second round of federal funding to help businesses through this nationwide economic crisis, after having rapidly exhausted the first round of funding under the CARE Act.

It only took 14 days for the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the CARE package, to exhaust its initial sum of $349 billion in funds. Montana received $1,470,300,170 in 13,456 PPP loans, which involved only 11.2% of Montana’s small businesses.

In the Paycheck Protection Program and CARE Act, Congress approved a second round of funding of $484 billion in the Health Care Enhancement Act, of which $320 billion will be made available for SBA loans. SBA began accepting business applications through their bankers as of April 27.

Stockman Bank has been studying the details of the new package and was geared up and ready to go on the first day, said CEO Bill Coffee. In the first round of financing, Stockman Bank was recognized by SBA as being the most active bank in the nation for the first day of the program, with the most loans approved.  Overall, Stockman had 2,177 loans approved for a total of $262 million.

While confident about the resiliency of Montana businesses, Coffee expressed concern about losses nationwide. He said he is predicting that a fourth of all businesses in the country will be lost to the COVID related economic crisis, over the next year to 18 months. “Montanan’s are hardworking, resilient and take care of one another, so I’m predicting we will not lose that many.  However, one small business lost in Montana is too many!” he said.

For business owners, Coffee advises, “First and foremost, do strategic planning about your business needs.  Plan how your business will operate during the restart period and then the next phase after restart.  Give serious thought, with realistic expectations, to how long it will take to get back to the new normal.  After this thorough sole searching, planning and projecting, contact your banker to discuss the new PPP and other options available.  Focus on your specific needs and what you anticipate the future holds.”

The SBA has emphasized that rural America, agricultural related industries such as production of food and fiber, ranching and raising of livestock, aquaculture, and all other independently owned farming and agriculture-related entities are eligible to participate in the program as long as they have 500 or fewer employees.

Most small local main street businesses have opened, joining the large national chain stores which never closed which were deemed “essential”. Rimrock Mall announced that after a two-week closure they are reopening, and bars and restaurants are continuing take-out orders as they prepare for partial re-openings this week.

“Shelter in home” orders to encourage social distancing, pushed many people into more outdoor activities even though many parks and campgrounds and recreation sites remain close, as are the national and state parks.

It seems lots of people are listening more to their radios. Taylor Brown of Northern Ag Network reports that on their flag ship radio station their listenership increased by 26 percent even thought a substantial portion of their listeners are farmers and ranchers who are always “social distancing”.

He said that about 60 percent of Northern Ag’s staff are working from home even though they have been busier than ever. It seems, he said, “People are just starved for timely, local information.”

In his observations of the business world, Brown said, “It seems like some businesses have decided to pull in their horns and cut back on marketing and maybe use this time to get away from what they were doing before. Then there are others that have decide to go the opposite direction and use this chance to step up to a larger role.

“Many ag producers are apprehensive right now, and some of them are struggling financially. …  It is easier to grow your brand and your market share at times when the economic pie is smaller; than when it is expanding quickly, and suddenly everybody wants to be in the game.”

Maintaining optimism, Brown said, “Montana is still going to try to get every cow bred this summer.  Every hayfield will get swathed and baled.  Every acre is going to get planted this spring.”

As to other aspects of Montana industry and how they will fare as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been commonly stated that tourism will be the hardest hit. Because of the significant role that tourism plays in Montana’s economic base, the state has been pointed to by organizations like the Economic Policy Institute as a state that be among the hardest hit by shutdown.

People in the industry remain somewhat optimistic, however, hoping that regional travel and low gas prices will bolster the losses suffered by the prolonged closure of motels and restaurants.

Having earlier cancelled elective procedures most hospitals in the state, faced with substantial losses on a daily basis,  had to lay off personnel, have announced that they will resume elective surgeries and health care, following safety protocols.

Billings Clinic announced in a press release, that they plan to open more in-person clinic visits the week of April 27 and to phase in elective surgical procedures on May 4. They opened a new curbside COVID-19 Pre-Procedural Testing Center on April 28. Patients scheduled for procedures that require intubation or aerosol-generating procedures are tested from their cars at the center, located at N. Broadway and 8th Ave. N outside near SameDay Care.

“COVID-19 has required us to re-think the way we function as an organization to get patients the vital health care they need in the safest way possible,” said Dr. John Pender, Billings Clinic Chief of Surgery.

Montana was at the top of states ready to open for business on May 1, according to “conservative” modeling done by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

In fact, Montana is identified as the only state in the nation that, based on its number of cases and deaths, could lift COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and social interactions that soon.

Under the Governor’s reopening guidelines, main street businesses – retail shops, salons, etc. —were allowed to open their doors, “just not like before the virus,” said the Governor. 

He left it up to most school districts to decide whether to reopen  on May 7, most had indicated they did not intend to re-open this year.

While each day matters in terms of how many businesses survive opening day for restaurants, coffee shops, distillers, bars etc., were required to wait another week, until May 4, under the Governor’s orders.  Spacing and distancing requirements imposed on those businesses means that most will have to operate at half capacity. Customers must be out of the establishments by 11:30 pm each day.

Some of those businesses lack the needed spacing so they will have to remain closed until spacing requirements are lessened.

All restaurants, bars, casinos, etc. are required to submit a plan to be approved and signed by the County Health Officer regarding how they intend to meet social distancing and hygiene requirements. They must include details regarding how they will train employees “to do business in a different way,” said the Governor.

Some businesses are reporting trouble getting former employees to return to work because they don’t want to forego unemployment benefits, which in some cases is greater than earnings.

Businesses are expected to continue teleworking as much as possible or keeping alternating schedules that reduce the numbers of employees in the work place, as well as maintaining six foot distances.

The Governor urged everyone to work with local health officials to develop plans to reopen. The local County Health Officer can impose more stringent measures, said the Governor, and he urged that citizens respect those orders.

It is uncertain when the next phase to reopen will come. The Governor said he will determine that phase based on the data and progress being made in reducing the number of virus cases.

Montana numbers show a dramatic drop in the rate of new cases with 2 reported on Monday, following a two –week stretch in which new cases each day ranged between 0 and 7. Over the past there were 3 or less daily. As of Monday, April 28 there are 451 confirmed cases in Montana, with 13,191 people tested, and 356 recovered, and 15 deaths.

There are 10 hospitalizations statewide, a number made meaningful since the restrictions on business operations and social movement were considered necessary in order to protect hospitals from being overwhelmed by severe cases needing acute care. The goal to “flatten the curve” is about controlling the rate of infection not preventing it. In fact health officials have stated that as many as 97 percent of the population will eventually contract the virus.

Travel bans will remain in place for the time being.

Senior living or assisted living facilities are required to prohibit visitations.

In general the population is encouraged to maintain all of the guidelines regarding social distancing, keeping six feet apart, washing hands, avoid groups of more than ten, etc.

In Phase 2, according to the guidelines issued, all businesses can remain operational, adhering to the physical distancing requirements.

Restaurants, bars, casinos, will operate the same way as in Phase 1, only with increased capacity.

Gyms, pools, theaters, etc. can become operational with reduced capacity, and only if they can adhere to strict physical distancing and they exercise frequent sanitation protocols.

Large events and places of assembly can be enlarged to gatherings of 50 or less.

Phase 3 will allow full business operations, and gatherings of unlimited size. Vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions, but with physical distancing practices still being followed.

The Billings Chamber of Commerce has launched a webinar series for small businesses to assist in answering questions for businesses and provide ideas to restart business. Some of the series events will be on May 4, 5 and 8. Contact the Chamber for details.