Coronavirus report: Kalispell

Holly Hayes/Flickr

We’ve asked reporters in communities around the state to file stories about how their towns are responding to the emerging presence of coronavirus. We’ll be publishing them in this space as they come in. News is changing fast during this ongoing story. These reports are necessarily snapshots in time. They may become outdated quickly. This piece was reported March 15-16, and published Tuesday, March 17.

KALISPELL — At 6 p.m. on Monday, March 16, Ashley Tetu straightened her computer’s webcam to center the live-stream on her yoga mat. On Sunday evening, the south Kalispell studio where she normally teaches yoga had announced it would cancel all classes for the foreseeable future.

“Yoga can help people stay calm, and focused, it can help with stress, it can help with immune function, but [classes are] not a necessary activity,” said Tetu, a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. “Last week, I mentioned [online classes] and people latched on to it. … Lying low in our houses is important, but people want that sense of consistency, and structure, and something to do while they’re waiting it out.”

Tetu said she spent her weekend exploring options to broadcast her classes, and this week is offering yoga sessions via Zoom, an online conferencing service, free of charge to her existing students, as she works out the kinks of the new system.

Over the weekend and on Monday, many businesses and social spaces in downtown Kalispell began adjusting to the spread of COVID-19. Even so, many business owners and employees report that customer behavior has not changed drastically in the past few days.

Wheaton’s Cyclery processed a normal number of tune-ups over the weekend, and has seen average, if not increased, customer traffic, according to owner Hans Axelson.

“It’s hard to say if we’re seeing a bump because it’s springtime, but people are talking about, ‘at least we still have bike riding.’ Gyms are closing, the [ski] resorts are closing,” Axelson said. “We’re trying to concentrate on giving people an outlet for exercise. You’ve got to live. Wash your hands and ride your bike.”

“We’re not experiencing that kind of social interaction where people are literally shoulder-to-shoulder clearing off the shelves. We’re experiencing calm people coming together to talk about what’s going on.”

—Bias Brewing taproom co-owner Gabe Mariman

The outlook was similar at Rocky Mountain Outfitter, said owner Jandy Cox. He reported that Monday was unexpectedly busy, due in large part to the closure of Whitefish Mountain Resort, which announced Sunday that it’s shutting down for the remainder of ski season. RMO sells gear for ski touring, which doesn’t rely on lift access.

“We sold four alpine touring packages [on Monday],” Cox said. “We usually sell, in the heat of the season — which we’re not in — four a week. To sell that on a March day is fairly unprecedented. So far, I haven’t seen a major blow to business, but I’m anticipating it.”

Cox also attributed Monday’s traffic to local trust in downtown businesses, where customers, owners, and employees have long-standing relationships.

Throughout the weekend, the Bias Brewing taproom was as busy as usual, co-owner Gabe Mariman reported.

“It feels like people are trying to get out and be with their friends and family while they can,” he Mariman said. “There’s a lot of fear-of-the-unknown consumerism at the grocery store. [At Bias], we’re not experiencing that kind of social interaction where people are literally shoulder-to-shoulder clearing off the shelves. We’re experiencing calm people coming together to talk about what’s going on.”

Mariman said the brewery is trying “to do the best thing, but this is a complex, fluid event.” Bias remains open for now, but Mariman is encouraging takeout and social distancing, and said, “We’re trending toward closing the taproom.” Following CDC recommendations, the brewery is canceling upcoming live music, pint nights, and other events — “all the things we do to be a cornerstone of the community,” Mariman said.

Over the weekend, shoppers casually browsed shelves of sweaters and shoes at The Toggery, according to retail floor manager Twila Brenneman. “Our business was pretty normal,” she said. “The weekend crowd was out shopping because the weather wasn’t super great.”

Patrons of Moose’s Saloon cracked peanut shells on the floor like any other weekend. Bartender Travis Anderson reported “nothing out of the ordinary. Lots of pizza, lots of beer, pretty mellow, the bar was full of people hanging out. … People are staying pretty positive.”

It was much the same down the street at Brannigan’s Pub, said bartender and server Amanda Fenger. “Everybody’s been talking about it,” she said of coronavirus concerns, but without any special sense of fear. For now, she said, “I don’t feel it has really affected us that much.”

Customer traffic slowed at Norm’s Soda Fountain, though waitress Rachel Fletcher said the regulars are still coming in for burgers. 

“The people who are coming have been coming weekly for years and years and years,” she said. 

Norm’s owner Beth Pirrie added that she’s “very appreciative of the customers, who have been very respectful of the situation. They don’t seem really freaked out. Everyone is still upbeat, but Norm’s is like that anyway. … I’ve noticed people are respecting others, keeping their space. We haven’t heard any customers saying, ‘this is ridiculous.’”

At Colter Coffee, manager Mike Frye said he’s interacted with customers on both sides of the coin: “Some people think it’s crazy, some people are nervous.” He said traffic over the last few days hasn’t been a constant flow, like usual, but instead has peaked in “strange little rushes.”

“On a normal basis,” Frye said, Colter is the kind of shop where “people will come for hours, and stay here to strike up a conversation, talk with people they know, people they don’t know. As long as we’re open, people are treating it that way. Hopefully we can keep that alive. We’ll stay open as long as we can, and make sure it’s a good, safe, clean environment.”

Several customers told Frye they were glad Colter’s remains open, since some other local coffee shops including Starbucks have adapted drive-through-window-only operations. For folks with slower internet connections at home, working “from home” means going to a coffee shop that offers WiFi, Frye said.

At the Sweet Peaks ice cream shop, customers took their cones of salty caramel and mountain mint outside, per a new take-out-only policy. As part of new sanitization measures, the business is now accepting credit card payments only.

“Customers so far have been pretty accepting [of the changes],” said team lead Ashlynn Sherade. “Some people are upset about not being able to pay with cash … but we’re just trying to keep all of our employees as safe as possible, and all customers as safe as possible.

“I hope that [staying open] will spark some joy in people’s lives,” she added. “With all the stress, you can come and get an ice cream cone.”