Editor's note: The following is a letter from Montana Governor Steve Bullock:

Over the last several weeks, Montanans have faced unprecedented challenges. Our way of life has changed rapidly. Like every corner of our country, our once thriving economy is ailing.

We have lost family members and friends.

I’ve said it before and you will hear me say it again: In times of crisis, Montanans have always pulled together. And this time has been no different.

Back in March, we knew that if we did not act, there would be dire consequences. That is why on Thursday, March 12, we declared a state of emergency before there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 here in Montana.

Just a few days later, after the first confirmed cases of the virus in the state, we made the decision to temporarily close our schools and allow for remote learning.

On March 20, we announced the closure of higher-risk businesses, such as bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters.

And on March 27, Montana entered into the stay at home order before over half of the states in the country did so.

We have been aggressively managing the virus. As a result of the actions we have taken, we have among the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation, and indeed of all the states, the lowest percentage of positive cases per capita when compared to our population. Montana also has the lowest number of hospitalizations, per capita, in the nation.

In short, we have flattened the curve and saved lives.

That is why today I announced the collective actions and sacrifices of Montanans have allowed us to get to where we are today – to begin a phased reopening of the state.

While there is reason for optimism this is not a time for celebration. I am asking Montanans to continue to go to great lengths to protect one another.

Because once we begin to reopen, we want to be able to stay open.

Our personal responsibility to protect those around us – particularly those most vulnerable – remains as important now as any time during this pandemic.

Montana’s plan to reopen and my Directive are posted online HERE and all COVID-19 related information can be found at: https://covid19.mt.gov/. My plan includes the steps we’ll be taking starting on Sunday to reopen and includes specific guidance for businesses and others to follow to keep Montanans safe and healthy.

Montana will enter the first phase of the plan beginning Sunday. Schools will have the option to reopen beginning May 7. Mainstreet and retail businesses can open on or after April 27. Places of worship can become operational on or after April 26th. Gyms, pools, and hot tubs remain closed as do other places of assembly including movie theaters, concert halls and bowling alleys.

Additionally, we are instructing all vulnerable Montanans to continue to follow the stay at home directive.

I strongly encourage business owners to read the guidance posted on the website to make sure they can comply with new requirements lowering capacity and requiring social distancing.

We are relying on Montanans to continue vigilance in handwashing and sanitizing, staying home if sick, calling a provider to get tested if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and minimizing non-essential travel.

Additionally, visits to Montana’s nursing homes will continue to be suspended except for certain compassionate care situations.

Our senior and assisted living facilities are among the most vulnerable places for cluster outbreaks, and while I can only imagine how hard it is for our legacy Montanans to be isolated as they have been, know that these steps are to keep them safe.

Even as we begin a phased approach to reopening, with the first steps in Phase 1 beginning this Sunday, we are not out of the woods yet with this virus.

Our new normal is going to look different. This virus isn’t gone from Montana. So, as we turn to support our main street businesses and get more families back to work during this time – as we should – we must also be sure to continue looking out for those around us and protecting everyone around us.

We will be monitoring cases closely and carefully. We need to see how this first phase works for Montana in line with our continued efforts to slow the spread of this virus.

Thank you for your comments to my office about how we can continue to protect the health of all Montanans as we start to get Montanans back to work and reengaged in our economy.

We need to keep working together, keep taking care of our neighbors, and keep doing what’s best for Montana.