Gov. Bullock

Montana’s Governor Bullock with a farmer. Courtesy photo.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester have taken steps to help the rural state, including farmers and ranchers, in dealing with COVID-19.

In addition to reopening parts of the state, Bullock is concerned with ranchers having lost processing facilities, and Tester is ensuring rural hospitals can maintain staff through recent legislative action.

Bullock wrote a letter during the final week of April to USDA Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking him to allow more processors to process local meat from Montana producers and farmers.

“I believe the request by our state meat inspection authorities is a reasonable step that should be approved,” Bullock wrote. “Our proposed protocols would enforce the intent of our food safety regulations and ensure that food is not wasted at a time when many Montanans need access to food during this crisis.”

Earlier, the Montana Department of Livestock and state meat inspection authorities requested USDA to allow custom processing under USDA modified guidance to cut down on food waste. They were turned down.

Allowing custom processing under USDA modified guidance would allow Montana-produced food to go to local food banks and other Montana facilities, and help local meat be processed and used.

In addition, Tester, a third-generation Montana farmer, has been working on legislation to bring relief to rural hospitals through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“Rural hospitals and clinics have been hit hard by this pandemic, suffering lost revenue even as they’ve worked tirelessly on the front-lines to keep folks in Montana’s remote communities healthy and safe,” he said.

Tester is currently at his farm in Big Sandy, finishing up planting his organic wheat.

The change Tester pushed will now allow any hospital that gets less than 50 percent of their funding from state or local governments, excluding Medicaid, to qualify for loans through the PPP.

“It will help maintain staff at our local rural hospitals throughout the course of the pandemic,” he said. Roughly one third of rural hospitals across the country are municipally-owned, including four hospitals in Montana: Garfield County Health Center in Jordan; Granite County Medical Center in Philipsburg; Marias Medical Center in Shelby; and Missouri River Medical Center in Fort Benton – all used by farmers and ranchers.

“These areusually ineligible for federal loans. This change will help with that,” Tester said.

Now hospitals will be able to get the loans they need to continue to operate and pay their staff.

Earlier this month, Tester urged U.S. Senate leadership to expand eligibility for the PPP to include rural hospitals.

“Making sure these small, county-owned facilities have the means to continue operating is critical,”Tester said.

As of April 29, Montana has 451 cases of COVID-19, with 15 deaths.

Bullock announced there would be a cautious reopening during the final week of April.

“While there is reason for optimism, this is not a time for celebration. I am going to ask Montanans to continue to go to great lengths to protect one another, to continue looking out for their neighbors who need it the most, and to continue being vigilant in every step we take,” Bullock said.

The plan to reopen gradually was based on the latest scientific evidence and data, Bullock said.

Montanans must continue to follow social distancing guidelines whenever possible and limit gatherings.

On May 7, schools can reopen or stay closed. On May 4, bars, restaurants, taverns and breweries can reopen under specific guidelines for owners and employees.

Bars will be required to close by 11:30 p.m., under the new guidelines.

“I’ve delayed the reopening of bars and restaurants and breweries at the request of healthcare professionals, as well as owners of these businesses themselves to give them time to properly train staff," Bullock said.

Those guidelines for employers include practicing social distancing and wearing protective equipment; implementing temperature checks and/or symptom screenings for employees; collaborating with public-health officials on testing, isolating, and contact tracing; and disinfecting common and high-traffic areas.

Businesses such as movie theaters and gymnasiums that cater to large groups and engage in close contact are not included in the initial phased reopenings.

“The Montana business community appreciates the Governor’s leadership over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Montana Chamber of Commerce supports a phased approach to reopening our economy, while still maintaining health standards and containing the spread of COVID-19,” said Todd O’Hair, president/CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce.