Credit: Tim Gage / 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 They may become outdated quickly.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 16-17, and published Wednesday, March 18.

BOZEMAN — Sunday morning broke cold here, with temperatures lingering in the single digits well into the morning. Bridger Bowl pass holder Maureen Kessler had decided to wait until the slopes warmed to go skiing. By doing so, she inadvertently missed her last opportunity to ride another chairlift at the local ski area this winter: by 12 p.m., Bridger Bowl had closed for the season in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Seventy miles southwest of Bridger, Big Sky Resort also closed its resort operations on Sunday. 

While Kessler said she’s disappointed Bridger Bowl is closed, she said the pandemic has energized her commitment to her career path. A doctoral candidate in Montana State University’s ecology and environmental science program, Kessler studies the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, specifically how the Hendra virus moves from Australian fruit bats to livestock and humans. 

“[The COVID-19 outbreak] reinforces that I picked the right field, and that what I’m doing is really important,” Kessler said, adding that her knowledge of disease spread has helped her stay grounded and calm. 

“Obviously, this is serious, but it’s serious for certain portions of the population,” she said. “Panic-buying toilet paper isn’t necessarily the right response, and at the end of the day, it isn’t going to change how this spreads through the community.”

Kessler said she’s preparing for the possibility that COVID-19 will delay completion of her Ph.D. as lab equipment for coronavirus-related research takes priority and she loses access to undergraduate research assistants. (MSU’s graduate students and professors are currently allowed to continue working on campus, Kessler said, but undergrads will finish the semester with online classes to limit disease transmission.)

Disruptions to Bozeman’s economy have also been felt outside of the university system and outdoor recreation industry. The coming weeks will be particularly hard on another bedrock sector of Bozeman’s economy: the service industry, which fuels Gallatin County’s booming tourism economy. 

Although Gallatin County has just two presumptively positive cases of COVID-19 at this time, public health officials have taken aggressive measures to limit the kinds of social gatherings that lead to the disease’s spread. 

Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley announced Monday that restaurants, bars, breweries and casinos would close to the public effective at 9 p.m. that night. Since the order is primarily aimed at limiting large congregations of people in public places, there are exceptions allowing some forms of business to continue. 

“There’s already a huge class and income disparity in this community, so I’m encouraging people who have any kind of disposable income or who aren’t as affected to pitch in and help where they can.”

—Bozeman writer Sarah Keller

Breweries can continue brewing beer, distilleries can continue making spirits, and restaurants with carryout and delivery options can continue those services. The health department also made an exception for institutions like hospitals that serve populations with limited access to other food sources. The order will be in place for establishments countywide through March 24.

“This situation is serious enough to warrant school closures, so it seems reasonable and prudent to put off St. Patrick’s Day celebrations until after a pandemic response,” Kelley said in a press release about the order.

Local science and conservation writer Sarah Keller said she’s trying to find ways to support small businesses and nonprofits during an uncertain time. 

“I think about what happens to Townshend’s Teahouse when nobody is going there anymore and they still have to pay rent, [and] all of the nonprofit organizations that are having to cancel fundraisers right now,” she said. “I’m hoping to [do things like] get takeout and tip a lot and consider how we can contribute in small ways.

“There’s already a huge class and income disparity in this community, so I’m encouraging people who have any kind of disposable income or who aren’t as affected to pitch in and help where they can,” she added.

Keller said she’s been thinking about social service nonprofits like Human Resources Development Council and Haven, an organization that serves and advocates for domestic violence survivors. “I’ve done a lot of personal education about domestic violence in the last few months, and I’m really concerned about domestic violence rates spiking right now because people are staying at home,” she said.

Keller added that she hopes Bozeman residents take the recommendations to limit social interactions seriously, particularly given the amount of travel into and out of the region. (The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport is the state’s busiest airport, serving more than 1.34 million travelers in 2018.) “It’s important to take our individual responsibilities seriously,” she said. 

At least in the short term, some members of Bozeman’s workforce — particularly those who are either already working remotely or work in a field conducive to telecommuting — are better positioned to weather the financial impacts of COVID-19.

Tom Fiddaman, a Bozeman-based simulation modeler and consultant who works from a home office, said he anticipates that increased remote work in response to the outbreak will help others become accustomed to using virtual collaboration platforms like Skype, Slack, and Zoom. 

“People will discover new ways of organizing things, and that might be beneficial, too, because it’s a way to avoid business travel that’s hard on the climate,” he said.

Last week, Fiddaman used his mathematical modeling skills to create a model of COVID-19 spread in Bozeman in order to understand potential impacts in this community, as well as ways to limit disease spread. Particularly given limited access to COVID-19 tests, preventative measures like hand washing and social distancing are crucial, he said.

Although the economic impacts generated by COVID-19-related closures are going to be “pretty devastating to a lot of people,” Fiddaman said, he thinks local officials are making the right call by taking decisive action now. 

“I’m really happy that we’re acting early,” he said. “That’s absolutely one of the keys.”

He added that though the current situation is like nothing he’s seen in his 54 years, the level of community cooperation the outbreak has engendered has been encouraging. 

The Bridger Canyon Property Owners Association, which he chairs, is putting together an email list to help its vulnerable members avoid trips to town by coordinating grocery runs and prescription medication pick-ups, for example. Volunteer Montana, an organization coordinated by United Way, and Bozeman’s Human Resources Development Council are also working on efforts to connect volunteers with opportunities to meet community needs.

“That’s one thing that’s still kind of unique out here — even though [Bozeman’s] a big town, it’s also a little bit of a small town,” Fiddaman said. “There’s a nice spirit of cooperation.”

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...