HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's governor on Tuesday expanded a mask mandate statewide and announced other restrictions as COVID-19 infections continue to surge and strain hospital resources.
Beginning Friday, masks must be worn in public statewide. The mandate had been in place for counties with four or more active cases of COVID-19 and already applied to all but two counties as of Tuesday.
Restaurants, bars, casinos and breweries will be limited to 50% capacity and must close by 10 p.m. Gatherings can't exceed 25 people if social distancing isn't possible, but Gov. Steve Bullock urged people to avoid getting together with more than 15 people. The limits do not apply to schools and places of worship.
The Democratic governor announced the restrictions at a news conference Tuesday as Montana tallied 1,500 new confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Bullock said an additional $75 million in federal coronavirus relief funding would be available for businesses that agree to enforce the mask and physical distancing requirement. Money will be doled out through a grant program that's already provided two rounds of funding, capped at $20,000 per business.
In addition, $25 million in supplemental unemployment benefits will be available, paid at $200 per week for eligible workers, beginning next week and lasting four weeks. Bullock said $2 million would be set aside food banks.
The governor said that despite the aid available through existing relief funds, additional federal funding was necessary to help the state manage the pandemic.
“Providing this minimal relief for Montana families and businesses does not let Congress get off the hook,” Bullock said.
Bullock, who for weeks held back on introducing new COVID-19 restrictions as the number of cases grew and the burden on the hospitals increased, said what led him to tighten the rules was dwindling hope for another federal relief package.
Since the pandemic began, Montana has recorded more than 49,000 cases of COVID-19. The number is believed to be far higher because not everyone has been tested and studies have shown some people can become infected without feeling sick.
The state reported that 456 people are hospitalized, including 91 in intensive care units and 53 on ventilators, according to a report released by the state Monday. Hospitals in seven counties were at 90% capacity or higher, according to the report.
With 543 confirmed deaths so far, COVID-19 is projected to be one of the leading causes of death in Montana in 2020.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.