Unemployment claims fall again as Montana ends more closures

May 14, 2020 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — New unemployment claim numbers have continued to drop in Montana as more coronavirus restrictions are eased, according to government data, but uncertainty still looms over large sectors of the economy as summer tourism season approaches.

Many retail stores, restaurants and other businesses have re-opened in the state over the past two weeks, although with capacity limits and other rules meant to curb viral transmissions. The next wave of re-openings comes Friday, when movie theaters, museums and gyms can resume business under restrictions for the first time since Gov. Steve Bullock ordered them shuttered March 20 to stem the spread of the virus.

Its unknown when other restrictions such as a two-week quarantine for travelers from out of state will be lifted. That has huge implications for the tourism industry with those visitors contributing roughly $3.7 billion to the state’s economy in 2018, the most recent year available, according to University of Montana researchers.

When the remaining restrictions will go away depends in part on testing for the virus that’s planned in coming weeks for residents of vulnerable communities including nursing homes, long-term assisted living facilities and American Indian reservations, said Marissa Perry, a spokesperson for Bullock.

Last week marked the second week in a row with lower unemployment claim numbers, after new applications for benefits had exploded beginning in late March and lasting through April.


Montana processed 3,443 new unemployment claims for the week ending May 9, according to federal data. That’s down 25% from the previous week. Still, it was almost 500% higher than the same period in 2019.

It brings total claims to just over 104,000 since officials shut down much of the economy and Bullock issued a stay-at-home order for residents in late March. About one in four of jobless claims in that period came from the sector of the economy that includes tourism and restaurants.

The U.S. House on Friday is poised to take up a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill from Democrats that includes an extension through January of 2021 of a $600 a week supplemental payment for the unemployed. It’s currently due to expire at the end of July.

Montana’s sole House member, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, said Thursday that the bill is opposed by Republicans and would be dead on arrival in the Senate. Gianforte said the supplemental payment helped people who were suddenly out of work, but extending it would encourage people to not return to work, since in some cases they could see their income drop with the loss of the extra $600.

“Extending those benefits further encourages people not to work,” he said, adding that’s becoming become problematic for employers. “I get the sense folks want to get back to work and we should focus on that.”

Gianforte is running in the GOP primary for governor against Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski.

The state reported no new cases of COVID-19 Thursday. To date, Montana has recorded 462 cases and 16 deaths, which are among the lowest per-capita infection and fatality rates in the U.S.

Only 15 cases are considered active and the number of currently hospitalized people has dropped to three.

As with restaurants and retail shops, the number of people allowed into any gyms, movie theaters and restaurants that reopen will be limited to 50 percent of normal capacity. Hand sanitizer must be widely available under a directive from Bullock, and employees and customers were encouraged to wear masks.

Many other commercial gathering places remain closed, including concert halls, bingo halls, bowling alleys and pools that are not in gyms or public accommodations such as hotels.

One major regional tourist attraction, Yellowstone National Park, will open its Wyoming entrances Monday but keep Montana entrances closed. Park officials cited in part Wyoming’s lifting of its 14-day self-quarantine for out of state visitors.

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. The vast majority of people recover.