Montana’s senators, representative prioritize coronavirus precautions as state sees first cases

As Congress waited to vote on its second multibillion-dollar coronavirus bill in less than three weeks, Montana’s delegation called for bipartisanship and cautioned constituents not to panic and be smart about public exposure.

U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester returned to Montana on Thursday as the state was shutting down on several fronts. State universities were shifting to online-only classes, and public events across Montana were being rescheduled or canceled to minimize the spread of the virus. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency.

None of the steps being taken were excessive, the lawmakers said, urging Montanans not to panic but to be cautious.

“These precautions, as painful as they are, I think we need to take the appropriate precautions here. We have a time at this moment to try and get ahead of what’s going on,” Daines said. “It remains to be seen if we will. We need to come back here and remember the basics of basic hygiene, of social distancing, and I think particularly it’s for the senior citizens. Young people, the data is telling us, and talking to our doctors at the NIH and CDC, young people are resolving this thing very effectively as long as they don’t have other kinds of immune problems and so forth. It’s the senior citizens that we really worry about, and we need to be protecting our seniors.”

By Friday evening, there were four Montanans in the state with presumptive positive tests for coronavirus. There was also one Montanan, a Lake County woman in her 70s living part-time in Maryland, that had been diagnosed with coronavirus in that state.

Officials at Malmstrom Air Force Base declared a public health emergency as it dealt with “a health situation involving COVID-19.” Days earlier, the Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, canceled a trip to the base.

Sen. Tester, a Democrat, visited the Montana Air National Guard facility Friday to look at how money diverted from Montana Air National Guard and given to the southern border wall was impacting the National Guard. He also canceled his Malmstrom visit, scheduled for Saturday.

Before the visit, Tester discussed what rural areas need in terms of a federal response to coronavirus.

“One of the biggest ones is if schools start shutting down, how kids are going to get fed. Because you don’t want to have a situation where people are congregating. In bigger towns you can deliver it, and it’s easier because the population is more together,” Tester said. “I think the other challenge is our hospitals. Those rural hospitals are critical. For the most part, they all need staff — and I’m not saying the big ones don’t, too. They do. But it just seems like its more critical in some of these rural hospitals. They depend on traveling nurses more, and I think it’s a real challenge out there to make sure that they have what they need to be able to deal with this problem as far as health care professionals go.”

Details of the next coronavirus bill were still being hammered out, but Tester said he hoped that there would be focus on helping people no longer able to work because of the virus, as well as businesses that because of the virus didn’t have employees would could work.

Tester said he was concerned about adding non-coronavirus items, such as infrastructure spending, to the bill because the entire federal response is being fueled by borrowed money. He blamed the 2017 Trump tax cuts for cutting federal revenue by more than $1 trillion, saying there isn’t enough revenue coming in to fund a response to a pandemic.

At the end of the week, Tester introduced bills creating temporary unemployment assistance and assuring coronavirus testing was free.

Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, freeing up $50 billion in spending for a coronavirus response. Just weeks earlier, the president had requested $1.25 billion from Congress for an initial coronavirus preparation. Lawmakers responded with $8.3 billion, which Montana’s delegation supported.

Tester said Trump’s initial response was insufficient, but that the president was responding better now after being exposed to coronavirus. Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the Centers for Disease Control are now influencing the administration’s response, he said.

“I think the administration was in denial on this. I think they were spreading things around that were absolutely false and when Fauci and the CDC and the FDA were allowed to tell the truth we found out what the impacts are,” Tester said. “As I tell people not to panic, it’s also something you don’t screw around with. You don’t treat it in a cavalier fashion like the president did, and I think the president has had a come-to-Jesus meeting because at the very same convention that he was saying this was a farce, he got exposed, is what I was told, and that’s CPAC.”

CPAC is the Conservative Political Action Conference where last weekend there was an attendee with coronavirus, sparking a few politicians to self-quarantine.

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, remained in Washington, D.C., on Friday, where House lawmakers were waiting for a vote on a coronavirus funding bill brokered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. House lawmakers were scheduled for a week away from D.C. to work in their home districts, but getting a bill passed and ready for the Senate to take up early next week was a priority, Gianforte said. He said he hoped the bill emerging from the House would be bipartisan, improving its odds of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“This is a public health challenge that honestly our country is unfamiliar with. We need to act swiftly, but we’ve got to do it wisely as well, and I share the sense that we need to take the time to get it right and make sure we do it in a bipartisan way because the health of the American people is more important than partisan politics,” Gianforte said. “I think we can come together on this. In speaking with leader McCarthy, they have been in in-depth discussions between the White House, Senate leadership and the House leadership to get a bill that gets relief for American workers and families that might be impacted by this health challenge we’re facing. And we got to make sure when you make changes like that, that you don’t have unforeseen consequences.”

Gianforte said things like telemedicine were going to be important in rural parts of Montana where medical staff were limited. Particularly for rural Montanans quarantined at home, telemedicine would be useful.

“We may not have enough providers in Montana, but if they exist elsewhere, it makes a lot of sense to allow them to provide care to individuals in their homes, where they might be self-quarantined. We are served in our rural communities by critical access hospitals. By statute, they have a limit of 25 beds. The president talked today about waiving that restriction for a period of time so that we can scale up capacity if need be. Also, length of stay is restricted in those critical access hospitals. Allowing people to be there until they’re healthy makes a lot of sense. These are some of things that are specific to Montana.”

Gianforte echoed Tester’s concern about there being federal support available for people who have to leave work because of coronavirus.

The paid leave portion of the phase two funding of the federal coronavirus response has been a sticking point between Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Conservatives have argued the compensation needs to be limited to the coronavirus response, while some Democrats prefer a more permanent program. Speaker Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, indicated Friday afternoon that the compensation would be specific to coronavirus, at least in the phase two agreement. She indicated several issues without bipartisan support would be deferred to another time.

Daines said he supported paid leave for workers sidelined by coronavirus and brought it up when visiting with Trump about payroll tax cuts. Not all Senate Republicans were supportive of paid leave for sick workers as business ended last week.

“I call this piece, the safety net package, phase two. This is going to address things like paid leave, which I recommended that to the president a week ago. There’s also a food stamp safety net there, kind of preparing for a situation where we may need to be able to get that safety net to people who are losing jobs, who need help,” Daines said. “There’s a very important Medicaid provision, as we’re anticipating there’s going to be more Americans needing health care, that the federal government will be increasing the payment to the states to cover what we anticipate will be a larger increase in health care costs.

“This package is going to be tens of billions of dollars and we need to, hopefully both sides will come to an agreement that can work for Republicans and Democrats and get this passed,” He continued. “This is not the time to politicize. This is not the time to use this time in history to drive maybe other policy outcomes you may seek otherwise. This is the time to address the current problem that we face.”

The third phase would be an economic stimulus package, Daines said. That would have to be done in a way the protects Social Security from a draw down related to a payroll tax cut through the year’s end, which he is pursuing. There are several moving pieces to a stimulus package that’s expected to be broad.