Billings Gazette: Tester, mayors see Montana need for COVID relief package

by Tom Lutey

Speaking for the first time about the newly passed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Tuesday that the broad sweeping bill would accelerate the medical and economic response to the now year-old pandemic.

Flanked by the Montana mayors and a representative of frontline health care workers, Tester said during a Tuesday press conference that much of Montana still strains under stress of the pandemic. Local governments are still incurring pandemic-related costs. Schools have yet to the normalize. Restaurant and entertainment venues remain challenged by health concerns about large gatherings.

“The bottom line is that this package will allow us to get this virus under control, get folks back to work, fully re-open our schools and reopen our economy,” Tester said. “And as soon as it’s signed into law, we’ve got to make sure this relief fund makes it in to the hands of Montanans as quickly as possible and that we provide strict oversight over these programs so we can eliminate any waste, fraud or abuse.”

Montana’s only statewide elected Democrat, Tester cast the state’s only supporting vote for the relief bill. Republicans U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale opposed the bill, which is expected to receive a second House vote Wednesday to reconcile differences between the two chambers. Daines had indicated he would support a bill roughly a third the size of the one passed in the Senate.

Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly said the $350 billion in the legislation for state and local governments nationwide would offset expenses cities would otherwise turn to local taxes to pay for, perhaps for years, in order to cover pandemic costs.

“Our communities in Montana fall into the long-haulers category,” Kelly said, using a description most often applied to COVID-19 victims who can’t shake disease side effects for months. “The symptoms we have today will give rise to residual effects and perhaps ongoing challenges in the future.”

Public safety, ongoing COVID-19 testing and safe public transportation are just some of the challenges cities have faced, while county health departments have shouldered the local COVID-19 response.

Kelly, past president of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said there are likely to be future COVID-related costs that haven’t been recognized. Keeping people in their homes, getting schools reopened and reawakening the economy are some of the community challenges ahead.

In Eastern Montana the rental situation in Sidney became challenging as demand for the oil declined and jobs in the Bakken oilfield diminished, said Mayor Rick Norby.

“Keeping people in their homes is a major part out here. We have a lot of people, with the oil impacts that we do have, that rent. Being able to help them stay in their apartments and things like that, I do like what I see here,” Norby said.

The Sidney mayor is president of the Montana League of Cities and Towns. He said in the eastern part of the state schools have managed to maintain in-classroom learning.

Tester said COVID-19 funding specific to local governments would be issued directly to Billings, Great Falls and Missoula, the state’s only three communities identified as metropolitan areas under the U.S. Census. The remaining funds would pass through Montana state government before reaching local communities.

Many more Montanans will have to be vaccinated to lower the public health risk of COVID-19, said Vicky Byrd, Montana Nurses Association executive director. Byrd said the relief bill would accelerate the vaccination effort and educate Montanans about a useful COVID-19 response.

“We have roughly 745,000 adults who still need to be vaccinated. Clearly, we need to receive more vaccines faster and the required supplies and health professional support to get them into Montanans’ arms,” Byrd said.

Personal protective equipment for the health care workers has been in short supply the entire pandemic, Byrd said. Nurses and other frontline workers are exhausted. The finish line starts with getting everyone vaccinated. People are going to have to be educated about the safety and usefulness of the vaccine.

“The mass distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine marks a real turning point in our ability to open up a robust society,” Byrd said. MNA is asking Montanans to continue wearing protective masks in light of new, more contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus entering the state. Despite the state of Montana lifting its mask mandate, the best practice is to continue wearing one, Byrd said.

“We know the CDC researchers have reaffirmed the mask mandates are associated with reducing the COVID cases and hospitalization rates,” Byrd said. “We continue to kindly ask that everyone please wear a mask until our vaccination rates and public health guidelines recommend otherwise.”