Signs of economic life stirring

Thursday, May 7, 2020
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Stillwater County was noticeably a little busier the past few weeks.

Under Phase 1 of Governor Steve Bullock’s reopening plan for the continued fight against COVID-19, retail businesses and hair salons were allowed to reopen March 27 with special conditions and the new-normal 6-foot distancing rule in place.

This past Monday, restaurants were allowed to reopen, but only at 50 percent capacity and with social distancing set-ups in place and specific cleaning requirements. Still not allowed under Phase 1 are self-serve buffets and drink refills.

Stillwater Community Health Nurse Natasha Sailer this week praised area businesses for the job they are doing in making the required changes in order for them to get back to business.

“They have done very well,” said Sailer.

It is a sentiment that Registered Sanitarian Josh Juarez echoed, saying businesses continue to submit the required plan to reopen.

“I have about 60 businesses that are operating according to the Phase 1 Re-opening guidelines,” Juarez told the News Wednesday. “The restaurants are doing a combination of take-out and inside orders.”

Juarez said that so far, there are only 4 restaurants that have not opened.

Sailer added that graduation ceremony plans for all five of Stillwater County’s high schools have been submitted to her and approved.

Local health officials last week also reopened playgrounds and parks. And the Stillwater County Commissioners decided Monday morning to unlock the courthouse doors for the first time since March 23.

The courthouse has been opened and staffed, but commissioners had been requiring the public to call whatever department they needed to do business with and be escorted into the building. The county employee ban on travel outside of Stillwater County for business purposes remains in effect, said Commissioner Chairman Mark Crago.

Late last week, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reopened its fishing access camp campgrounds last Friday, May 1. The city of Columbus also reopened Itch-Kep-Pe Park last weekend, which filled up with campers in short order.

Bullock has repeatedly declined to put any kind of time frame on Phase 1, saying it is dependent on the continued downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases.

Earlier this week, Bullock announced $1.23 million available for the first round of emergency grants funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This first round of grants is for small businesses, families, non-profit groups and health service centers impacted by the economic ripple effect of COVID-19.

“Starting May 7, Montanans out of work, families with limited resources, small businesses, non-profits and others can apply for financial relief for things like rental and mortgage assistance, business and non-profit grants, grants to serve seniors and those living with a disability, food banks and local food producers,” said Bullock in a call with reporters.

The following new programs join the state’s suite of existing support services and direct federal programs:

•The Montana Business Stabilization Grant program will provide working capital for Montana-owned small businesses with 50 or fewer employees that have sustained a loss of revenue due to COVID 19. Current funding available is $50 million, with a maximum award amount per business set at $10,000.

•The Montana Innovation Grant program is intended to help companies scale up, improve capabilities, or drive expanded distribution of products or services developed in response to COVID-19. Non-profit and forprofit businesses of less than 150 employees with primary operations in Montana that have created an innovative product or service intended to directly confront the COVID-19 emergency can apply for grants of up to $25,000. Current funding available is $5 million.

•Montana Food and Agriculture Adaptability Program grants are available to food and agriculture businesses to help increase community resilience amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other economic disruptions.

Examples of eligible projects include those focused on accessing new markets, projects that strengthen and expand local food systems, and other business adaptations that decrease food and agricultural waste. Current funding available is $500,000, with a maximum grant award of $10,000.

•Emergency Housing Assistance Program will provide rent, security deposit, mortgage payment, and/or hazard insurance assistance as-needed for Montanans who have lost a job or substantial income loss as a result of COVID-19. Initial payments may include up to three months assistance where the eligible household can demonstrate arrears for April and May, with continual inability to make their June payment. Montana Housing will pay the difference between 30 percent of the household’s current gross monthly income and their eligible housing assistance costs, up to $2,000 a month. Household income limits range from $75,000-$125,000 based on family size. Montanans receiving other forms of housing assistance are not eligible. Total funding available is $50 million.

•Public Health Grants are available to local and tribal health departments and urban tribal clinics to help in the response to COVID-19 and to meet the needs of their communities. Each organization is eligible to apply for funding. Current funding available is $5 million.

•Stay Connected Grants ranging from $500-$2,000 per applicant are available to reduce social isolation among Montana’s seniors. Eligible applicants include area agencies on aging, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and tribal elder services. Grant funds can be used to fund technologies and other efforts to encourage physically distant forms of social interaction for elderly Montanans during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Current funding available is $400,000.

•Food Bank and Food Pantry Assistance of up to $50,000 per applicant are available to increase food security for Montanans hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligible applicants include community organizations providing food assistance to Montanans with limited resources, food banks, food pantries, community cupboards, and entities with infrastructures already in place to begin new food distribution programs. Current funding available is $2 million.

•Social Services Nonprofit Grants of up to $10,000 per applicant are available for nonprofit organizations impacted by the COVID-19 public health emergency to retain existing programs and services, employees, or organizational viability for provision of future services and operations. Eligible applicants are registered, Montana-based social service nonprofits that were operating prior to February 15, 2020. Current funding available is $10 million.

•Telework Assistance Grants of up to $1,000 per individual will go towards purchasing equipment to assist Montanans with disabilities access telework equipment. DPHHS will partner with a local nonprofit organization to assess and support assistive technology needs of individuals with disabilities during COVID-19. This assistance will help ensure people with disabilities have the equipment needed to adapt to the change in working environment due to COVID-19. Current funding available is $650,000.

A comprehensive information resource and application portal will available at COVIDRelief.mt.gov as of 8 a.m. Thursday, May 7.