On Wednesday, April 22, Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock announced that Montana would begin the nation’s proposed phased reopening plan and lift the shelter in place order on Sunday, April 26. Montana’s rapid shutdown, which went into effect before its first confirmed case, helped the state maintain some of the lowest amounts of cases in the nation. This has earned Montana the right to enter phase one of the federal Opening Up America Again plan, President Trump’s three-phased approach based on the advice of public health experts.

To qualify to enter into phase one, a state must pass three criteria: a downward trajectory of influenza and COVID-like illnesses and symptoms reported within fourteen days, a downward trajectory of documented cases, and enough capacity for hospitals to treat all patients without crisis care and put a robust testing program in place. After these three criteria have been met, a state can proceed with phase one.

Starting April 26, places of worship were permitted to reopen in the state, and on April 27, retail business could reopen. Employers are encouraged and directed to develop policies that will keep their employees and customers safe, including policies such as teleworking, enforcing social distancing protocols and lowering their maximum capacities. Based on the recommendations and requests from the medical community, the reopening of bars, restaurants, and breweries will be delayed until May 4. Schools will have the option to re-open starting May 7 at the discretion of their local school boards.

While it is a small victory to enter into phase one, this is not the time to throw caution to the wind. After lifting the shelter in place order, Bullock quickly followed with, “Now that doesn’t mean it’s time for the celebratory block party or big BBQ.” Citizens are still strongly advised to continue following strict social distancing practices and avoid hosting or participating in gatherings of more than ten people. Businesses that cannot enforce social distancing, such as gyms and movie theatres, will remain closed. 

School boards are also faced with a difficult decision concerning graduation ceremonies as May quickly approaches. Bullock said, “I would encourage you all to be creative in considering how you can honor your graduates while minimizing, not eliminating, the risk of the spread of the virus.” At-risk individuals are still encouraged to stay at home and drastically limit their social interactions to maintain their health. Senior care facilities are still prohibited from receiving visitors.

As Montana enters into phase one, the governor and his task force will continue to monitor how the virus spreads during the reopening period. There is no official end date for the first phase, as Bullock expects an increase in cases as people begin leaving their homes more frequently and in larger numbers. The government will monitor the changes caused by phase one and will only proceed to phase two when they feel it is safe to do so. Citizens of the state should do everything in their power to try and reduce the impact of the surge. “I’m going to continue to ask Montanans to continue going to go to great lengths to protect one another,” said Bullock. As the Big Sky state leads the country’s reopening effort, it's up to us to ensure its success.