March 20 COVID-19 updates: Library offering curbside pickup; Malmstrom AFB raises health protection level; Cascade County declares emergency; county jail still accepting offenders; Bullock orders closures of dine-in food and beverage businesses; Showdown closing; GFPS food drive today at Bison Ford; Great Falls Rescue Mission adjusting operations

According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services there are now 21 cases of COVID-19 across the state, none in Cascade County. One of those cases is counted in Montana though the woman was tested and remains in Maryland.

A state tracking map shows the confirmed cases are as follows by county:

  • Madison County: 1 case
  • Flathead County: 1 case
  • Gallatin County: 2 cases
  • Silver Bow County: 1 case
  • Yellowstone County: 5 cases
  • Ravalli County: 1 case
  • Broadwater County: 1 case
  • Missoula County: 4 cases
  • Lewis and Clark County: 3 cases
  • Roosevelt County: 1 case
  • Lake County: 1 case

Great Falls Public Library

The Great Falls Public Library is now offering curbside pickup.

Library card holders can place holds online or call the library at 406-453-0349, then wait for a confirmation call from library staff with a pickup time.

Be ready with your ID when you come get your books.

“Curbside pick-up is undertaken with all possible safety procedures in regard to safe handling of library materials,” according to the library.

Patrons can call Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., to renew books, ask questions or place holds.

To allow for greatest access and service for Cascade County residents, new library card signup is available via phone.

“GFPL staff are taking all possible precautions to stay safe and protect our patrons. Since the COVID-19 virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, staff are practicing ‘social distancing’ and frequent hand washing. While the possibility of transmission occurring from surfaces is extremely low, library staff are taking the precaution of wearing gloves while handling materials, washing hands frequently, and quarantining all materials returned to the library for 72 hours,” according to the library.

Digital services are always available with your library card. The library is part of a statewide consortium that provides ebooks and audiobooks as free downloads with your library card. Instructions for digital services are provided on our website, and available from staff via phone.

Material returns are still accepted at the library’s outside book drops. No late fees will be accruing during this time, but patrons are encouraged to renew materials if they are overdue.

The library’s free WiFi signal has been boosted to reach as far as possible. The WiFi is on from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and the password is gfpl1234.

Residents can email questions to the library at questions@greatfallslibrary.org, follow on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Bullock extends tax deadline

Gov. Steve Bullock extended the payment and filing deadlines for 2019 individual income taxpayers to July 15 in accordance with the new federal filing deadline.

“Montanans across the state have been impacted by COVID-19 and extending the deadline gives taxpayers breathing room without having to worry about interest or penalties,” Bullock said in a release. “I encourage all Montanans who expect a refund to file as soon as they can to have additional income during this difficult time.”

Extending the state filing deadline is in line with an announcement from the IRS to extend its deadlines for federal income tax filing and payments to July 15.

The Montana Department of Revenue will be lenient in waiving penalties and interest associated with late tax payments and the department will work with taxpayers on an individual basis.

The deadline for those making estimated tax payments for the first quarter of 2020 has also been extended to July 15. The due date for the second quarter remains July 15 at this time.

Tax resources are available at: https://mtrevenue.gov/taxes/

Statewide waiver requests for standardized tests

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the U.S. Department of Education will process statewide waiver requests for standardized tests. Montana Superintendent of Public Education Elsie Arntzen submitted an assessment waiver request to the Montana Board of Public Education and the U.S. Department of Education earlier this week.

“I want to thank Secretary DeVos for her commitment to student safety and local control under these unprecedented times for Montana schools,” Arntzen said in a release. “Local school leaders need maximum flexibility as they continue serving their students, teachers, and communities. Removing these federally mandated tests is one way that we can help our teachers, school leaders, and most importantly our families and students.”

The Office of Public Instruction held a conference call March 20 with district and county superintendents, Montana education associations, and state and federal partners to discuss local, state, and federal responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Arntzen will continue requesting waivers and extensions from the governor’s office and federal government as needs arise. The OPI is also in communication with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to ensure that high school students who want to take the ACT are afforded the opportunity, according to a release.

Malmstrom Air Force Base

In response to increased confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Montana, and recent public health actions taken by the City of Great Falls and local community partners, Malmstrom Air Force Base raised its Health Protection Condition level from Alpha plus to Bravo on March 20.

There are still no confirmed cases on Malmstrom or in Cascade County.

Raising the HPCON level to BRAVO aligns base posture and efforts with those of local, state and national health agencies regarding COVID-19. HPCON B measures address a moderate health threat to base personnel due to a heightened exposure risk. The personal measures include strict hygiene (no shaking hands and wiping common use items), avoiding high-risk areas and, if exposed, self-isolation, according to a release.

To mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19, Malmstrom is implementing further base-wide proactive measures under HPCON B such as an increased number of members teleworking from home, minimum manning procedures, shift work and limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, according to a release.

  • The Exchange and Commissary will remain open with modified hours, limits on in-demand products, and increased ID checks.
  • The Child Development Center and Youth Center will remain open, but be limited to use by mission essential personnel only. These facilities will likely close if the base moves to HPCON C.
  • The fitness center and car wash will remain open, but will likely close if the base moves to HPCON C.
  • All chapel services will be virtual.
  • The CIRCLE will close.
  • No additional base access restrictions are in place at this time; however they may be implemented in the future under increased HPCON levels.

All measures taken are to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among our base population and to ensure continuation of our no-fail mission.

Malmstrom personnel should follow Center for Disease Control guidelines and avoid large gatherings, limit close contact with others, and maximize social distancing and personal hygiene. Base leadership is continually monitoring the situation and working closely with the Montana Department of Health and military medical officials to provide airmen and families with up-to-date information on appropriate measures to prevent the potential spread of the virus, as well as any impact on the mission, according to a release.

DoD and Malmstrom will continue to follow the guidance from the CDC and will continually assess the need for further restrictions and adjust accordingly as the situation evolves, according to a release.

Base officials will hold another live Facebook town hall on March 23.

Cascade County declares emergency

Cascade County Commission Chairman Jim Larson signed a Declaration of Emergency for Cascade County this morning.

“Under MCA 10-3-406, a Declaration of Emergency enables the county to enact their Emergency Operation Plan and access to additional authority not available otherwise,” according to a county release. “The Cascade County Emergency Operations Plan is a pre-planning tool defining the management strategies for response to the emergency needs of a community. The Cascade County EOP was approved by the chief executive officers for Cascade County, the City of Great Falls, Town of Belt, Town of Cascade and Town of Neihart in 2016 and is reviewed regularly and updated by the Local Emergency Planning Committee and local governments. The EOP is utilized by the Cascade County Emergency Management Department to address mitigation of foreseeable hazards and define how emergency response will be conducted to protect communities during and following an emergency. The EOP also helps identify available resources and provides guidelines for resource management.”

The county DES manager position is currently vacant. According to the County Commission calendar, the county is conducting interviews for that position this morning.

In the release, Larson said, “we do not wish to create additional alarm among the citizens of Cascade County with the signing of this declaration; however, by signing it we can access resources and make more timely decisions to support our Cascade City-County Health Department.”
The full declaration is available here.

“Since February, the CCHD, under the direction of the Public Health Officer, Trisha Gardner, has been coordinating discussions, and assembling critical health providers and first responders to help position the community response in advance of the spread in our community,” according to the release.

Cascade County Adult Detention Center and first responders

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter told The Electric today they’ve taken precautions for deputies, jail staff and inmates, but are not restricting admissions to the jail or the types of calls they’re responding to.

Earlier this week, Missoula County announced it was not accepting misdemeanor offenders at their jail and both the city and county law enforcement agencies said they were discontinuing in-person responses to non-emergency calls.

For now, the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office is responding to all calls and taking any offenders brought to the jail.

“I feel that there’s a public panic that could lead to some unrest and people need to know there’s consequences,” Slaughter told The Electric. “People are not going to exploit this virus issue as an excuse to break the law, I won’t tolerate it.”

Slaughter said that he has asked deputies and law enforcement partners to use good judgment and avoid bringing sick people to jail if they can be cited for minor crimes and dealt with later.
“But if they’re a bad actor, they’re going to jail, plain and simple,” he said.

Deputies have been given additional personal protection equipment, particularly eye protection, Slaughter said, and are continuing patrols to provide proactive law enforcement.

Slaughter said some jails are releasing misdemeanor offenders, but he’s not planning to do so since if someone is released, exposed to COVID-19 then reoffends and comes back to jail, it would spread there.

“This is not the time to be releasing people who have a history of committing crimes out onto the street,” he said.

Slaughter said the sheriff’s office has a contingency plan should an inmate or employee in the jail test positive for COVID-19. He said he’s working with the county health department to be able to rapidly test anyone at the jail who presents symptoms, but no one has yet, he said.

Slaughter said the jail has the capability to quarantine multiple inmates if necessary.

Great Falls Fire Rescue stations and offices are closed to the public, but firefighters are continuing to respond to emergency calls. In-person payment for Safety Inspection Certificates, ride-a-longs, and non-essential training have been suspended.

Great Falls Police Department’s Capt. John Schaffer said they have a plan, but for now, “GFPD is not changing the way we respond or take enforcement action. We are emphasizing PPE, social distancing and sanitizing. We are also emphasizing the CDC and the President’s guidelines.”

Republic Services

Republic Services has closed their officer to customers for now, but operations are continuing as normal.

Mike Cross, general manager in Great Falls, said that customers can pay bills by phone or call the main officer with questions at 406-761-2545.

Cross asked customers to make sure their trash is bagged and that recycling items be separated and bagged to help protect their employees from exposure or the spread of COVID-19.

Bullock orders closure of public gathering places

To curtail the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive March 20 to close dine-in food service and alcoholic beverage businesses and other activities that pose enhanced health risks, beginning 8 p.m. March 20 through 11:59 p.m. March 27.

That’s the same day the school closures are set to expire, but the date is likely to be extended, according to a release from Bullock’s office.

“Both young and older Montanans, in urban and rural communities, have tested positive for coronavirus, making it even more clear that this virus impacts us all and that these actions are imperative to protecting our friends and neighbors,” Bullock said in a release. “We face extraordinary health risks – and with it even further risks to our economic and social well-being – if we do not act now. I do not take this decision lightly and it was done so in consultation with public health professionals. Montanans, too, need to take this seriously. It’s up to all of us to stop the spread of this virus.”

Under the directive, the following places are closed to ingress, egress, use and occupancy by members of the public:

  • Restaurants, food courts, cafes, coffeehouses, and other similar establishments offering food or beverage for on-premises consumption.
  • Alcoholic beverage service businesses, including bars, taverns, brew pubs, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, tasting rooms, special licensees, clubs, and other establishments offering alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption.
  • Cigar bars.
  • Health clubs, health spas, gyms, aquatic centers, pools and hot springs, indoor facilities at ski areas, climbing gyms, fitness studios, and indoor recreational facilities.
  • Movie and performance theaters, nightclubs, concert halls, bowling alleys, bingo halls, and music halls.
  • Casinos.

The places subject to this directive are permitted and encouraged to offer food and beverage using delivery service, window service, walk-up service, drive-through service, or drive-up service, and to use precautions in doing so to mitigate the potential transmission of COVID-19, including social distancing.
Directive on Bars and Restaurants

On March 19, the Cascade County health officer ordered that bars, restaurants, casinos, gyms, bowling alleys, movie theaters and other public recreation places to close beginning 6 a.m. March 20 through 8 p.m. March 27.

The order allows for delivery, drive through and carry-out options and many local businesses have transitioned to those services.
Community, business owners supporting each other amidst COVID-19 closures
March 19 COVID-19 updates: health officer orders restrictions on bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, etc.; city declaring sate of emergency; changes at city attorneys office, animal shelter and Municipal Court; downtown metered parking enforcement suspended; Lewis and Clark Trail Mixer postponed; GFCMSU changing access, operations

Showdown is closing

March 20 is Showdown’s last day.

“We are incredibly proud of our team and what we have accomplished the last few days. We’ve been through and vigilant in our efforts to protect our employees and guests. Our numbers have been small and manageable to this point, and we have a high degree of confidence in what we have been able to do as a community,” according to a Showdown post. “However as the weekend approaches, the phone continues to ring nonstop, and the unknowns escalate that confidence has waned. The large number of skiers possible creates a level of risk we are not comfortable accepting.”

GFPS Food Drive

The Great Falls Public Schools truck will be at Bison Ford at 2:30 p.m. March 20 to pick up any food for their school food pantries. Drop off anytime prior to 2:30 p.m. for families in need: tortillas, spaghetti, snacks, orange juice, canned beans etc.

Benefis elective surgeries

Benefis is not cancelling surgeries at this time. This is a dynamic situation and we will take appropriate action around elective surgeries as needed, according to a Benefis spokeswoman.

Great Falls Rescue Mission

Here’s information we just received from the Great Falls Rescue Mission:

Great Falls Rescue Mission has been categorized as a healthcare facility/hospital per the Center for Disease Control, which allows us to remain open and continue to serve the homeless in our community. We are following the recommendations provided by the CDC, which means we are taking heightened preventative measures and have decided to implement the following actions effective immediately:

1. All shelters are taking heightened preventative measures and are limiting activity in and out of each of our facilities, which means visitors of guests are not allowed at this time. Guests will be granted approval to leave for essential outings such as work and doctor’s appointments. We are continually disinfecting each facility, following the 20 second hand washing procedure, coughing into elbows and maintaining the recommended social distancing of 6 feet. Public lunch and dinner have been suspended. We are providing sack meals instead to anyone who is in need.Anyone who is seeking shelter, will be subject to testing, including: temperature checks for temperatures over 100, urine drug testing, and a screening questionnaire regarding COVID-19. Shelter will be provided for anyone who has been living inside Montana. Anyone seeking to check-in from outside the state of Montana may be referred to other resources in the community.If you would like to refer someone to Great Falls Rescue Mission and they need help, please call us ahead of time at (406) 761-2653. It is our desire to help everyone as best as we are able to all the while keeping our current guests safe and healthy all at the same time.Cold weather services will be granted to anyone seeking shelter for the evening and will be asked to check-in at 10 p.m. Cold weather services apply at the Women’s Shelter & Cameron Family Center when it is 32 degrees or below and at the Men’s Shelter when it is 25 degrees or below.

2. All volunteer opportunities are suspended effective immediately. In order to exercise extreme caution in protecting our guests, volunteers and staff, all volunteer opportunities will be suspended. We value our GFRM volunteers; however, GFRM employees are currently taking care of our guests’ needs at this time.

3. The GFRM Thrift Store is closed until further notice.Due to the high volume of donations and customers that our Thrift Store interacts with, we will be halting all Thrift Store services and all donations. We will continue to provide updates and will determine when it is safe to reopen.

4. We will be accepting food and monetary donations only. All clothing and household donations are suspended at all GFRM facilities until further notice. Other donations will not be accepted at this time unless it is an immediate need, which will be posted and updated on our website here: http://gfrm.org/ways-to-help/needs-list. If you would like to bring down a donation, we ask that you bring them to our Administration Office, located in the Cameron Family Center at 408 2nd Ave. S., East Entrance. Please call ahead so that essential GFRM admin staff can meet you at the door or curbside.

5. The 57th Annual Banquet has been postponed and rescheduled for Sept. 21 at the Heritage Inn. Due to the CDC’s recommendation of limiting groups to 10 people or less for a period of 8 weeks, the annual fundraiser that was set to take place on April 6, will be put on hold. Our scheduled speaker, Frank Peretti, has agreed to still speak on Sept. 21.

As a result of the COVID-19 Outbreak, our staff and resources will be stretched very thin. Many individuals, businesses and churches have reached out and asked how they can help during this time. THANK YOU! We humbly ask you to consider helping us by donating online here today. We will continue to take food and monetary donations during this time. Great Falls Rescue Mission currently provides shelter and three meals a day to over 230 individuals including 60 children and youth.

Local help is available through contacting United Way’s Helpline #211. This resource is available to anyone who has been affected by COVID-19 and will help free medical and emergency responders to address immediate help needs. We are working closely with the City County Health Department and many other agencies to ensure the safety of all. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 outbreak and will provide GFRM status updates as they come available. Please check our website www.gfrm.org for the most up-to-date information and announcements. For questions or concerns, please contact our GFRM Administration office at (406) 761-2653.