The normally bustling parking lot of Flipper's casino and tavern was dark on Saturday night, March 21. Credit: Erika Fredrickson / MTFP

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 They may become outdated quickly.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 21-22, and published Monday, March 23.

MISSOULA — A Saturday night in downtown Missoula is never quiet. By 5 p.m., restaurants from the north end of Higgins Avenue to the Hip Strip neighborhood south of the Clark Fork are usually crawling with families, college students, and 30-somethings on dates. By 9 p.m. the bars and breweries are packed with revelers. Kris Moon spins records at the Badlander for the dance party crowd. Showgoers swarm the Top Hat and Wilma for whatever touring band is in town that night. There’s often a comedy show and a throng of arthouse film lovers filling the Roxy Theater. Lines of cars cruise across the Higgins bridge. 

But five days after Missoula County closed down all bars and mandated a take-out-only policy for restaurants due to COVID-19 concerns, downtown looked like an eerie scene out of The Leftovers: more hasty exodus than dilapidated ghost town. A two-block stretch of Ryman Street that’s home to at least five downtown bars and music venues was dead, the electric buzz of streetlights the only sound. An occasional car crawled down Broadway. A few people wandered the sidewalks looking into windows.

One place on Broadway was open: the Night Owl liquor store, part of the Badlander complex, which also features the Golden Rose bar, the Locals Only taco restaurant, and a pool hall called Three In the Side. Ryan Staninger, general manager of the Night Owl, was sitting behind the counter in what looked like a moment of meditation. He said that after the county mandate, the Badlander complex pared its staff down to just Staninger and two other managers. They were selling liquor and tobacco as usual, but also taking taco orders to go — 15 orders so far that evening. They don’t have money to run ads, so Staninger put rainbow lights in the windows to let people know he’s open, and brought his mobile DJ setup to play music.

He said the night before was bizarre, too. 

“Friday night at 11:45, it’s normally a zoo out there,” he said. “We’d have 600 in the Badlander and another 200 in the Rose. And there was nobody there.” 

When a man came in to buy a bottle of Evan Williams, Staninger was upbeat. “Cool, man,” he said. “Fourteen dollars — it’s a steal!” The man smiled.

After he left, Staninger talked about how dire the virus news seems. He’d been reading about the situation in Italy. 

“You have to take it day by day,” he said. “Actually, hour to hour. Businesses are going to have to be clever to stay open, because who knows how long this is going to last. That’s the silver lining, if there is one, I guess: innovation.” 

He touched his hand to his heart and said, “Take care out there.”

Innovation is a big part of the conversation in Missoula right now. Downtown is dead, but the online world is alive. On Saturday, for instance, with local stages shuttered, songwriter John Brownell live streamed a set of songs from his home to 40 listeners. People typed in requests. “We are over here in Canada clapping,” one viewer wrote. “I’m drinking a Caesar and eating tacos,” another wrote. There were “woohoos” and heart emojis.

“The most essential things are always bigger than commerce, and that’s part of what this crisis is showing us.”

—Montgomery Distillery co-owner Jenny Montgomery

“So how’s everybody hanging in?” Brownell said to the camera. “This is pretty fucked up. Right? I feel really weird.” 

There has been a swift shift to a new musical norm. Musicians like Travis Yost, Tom Catmull, Joseph Running Crane and others who typically make their money at brewery and bar gigs have turned to Facebook Live and other online platforms. They offer their audience links to Venmo accounts for donations, like a virtual tip jar. 

And at least for now, it seems to be working. On Friday, a trio called Junior, along with alt-country singer Izaak Opatz, played a live-streamed show from the second floor of downtown’s Radius Gallery to about 200 virtual viewers. 

“When we first talked about doing a telecast last week, it seemed ridiculous,” said Jenny Fawcett, Junior’s violinist. “It seemed so far-fetched and weird. And then Travis Yost started broadcasting from his living room. By the time this week came, it didn’t seem weird anymore.”

The band members self-quarantined for two weeks before the show and performed standing the obligatory six feet from each other. Sound engineer Matt Olson — who helped launch several local live-streamed shows last week — set up the equipment. Fawcett said she struggled with how to stage the show safely.

“It was stressful,” she said. “It seemed really performative — that six feet apart idea. How are we supposed to set up our gear and microphones and stay six feet apart? I was ready to throw in the towel and let the virus win.”

But they did it, and the live stream conveyed a palpable mood of hope and anxiety. Several viewers typed in their thanks with variations of, “This is what I needed right now.” Others joked that it was the perfect concert: you could socialize with friends while curled up on your couch and drinking a beer.

Fawcett thinks maybe that’s the last time they’ll do a show like that for a while, though. 

“Shows like that are somewhat risky,” she said. “I feel lucky we got to make that one happen.”

Fawcett is one of many local artists who were laid off from their Missoula service jobs. She was a barista at Le Petit Outre bakery, and her husband, Tom Helgerson, was a chef at Burns St. Bistro. They have no income now, though the bistro allowed employees to take home food from the walk-in cooler before the restaurant shut down. She and Helgerson have applied for unemployment, but that’s been tough, too. On Sunday, Fawcett said, the state’s unemployment website site was constantly crashing due to so many people trying to file for benefits by the weekly deadline.

“It’s really scary,” Fawcett said. “We really are paycheck to paycheck people. And even more than that, I relied on tips to pay my bills. That started to go away last week, when people were coming out less and less. It was a really strange combination of feelings for me. I was glad people were taking things seriously, but really scared they weren’t coming in to buy coffee. My income was rapidly evaporating.”

Also innovating is Montgomery Distillery. The cocktail bar is dark now, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Owners Jenny and Ryan Montgomery have ordered supplies to start making hand sanitizer with their alcohol. 

“As a company we’re taking it day by day,” Jenny said. “Our laid-off employees are resilient, but this can only go on for so long. We are all saving the lives of our neighbors by staying home, and we can save businesses if we get creative.”

Retail that remains open has had to adjust expectations. Worden’s Market, which sells beer, wine, and groceries, has seen a reduction in traffic by about half, with occasional surges. The Notorious P.I.G. has stayed open to sell take-out and curbside delivery barbecue.

“We’ve been pretty slammed every day,” said manager Tessa Van Ostrand. “But we don’t know if we’re going to get shut down at some point.” 

“It’s really scary. We really are paycheck to paycheck people. And even more than that, I relied on tips to pay my bills. That started to go away last week, when people were coming out less and less.”

—Jenny Fawcett, former Le Petit Outre barista

That uncertainty has driven the business to be cautious about smoking too much meat, and they’re letting menu items run out as they wait to see what happens next. They’re already out of popular items like mac and cheese. The restaurant has cut a third of its staff (which is less than a lot of other Missoula businesses). 

When people call, Van Ostrand says, she sometimes hears mild panic in their voice when they ask if there’s any food left. The seating has been stacked to the sides of the dining room, and customers keep their distance from the cash register, engaging in minimal chit-chat. It’s good practice in regard to social distancing, but it’s a change from the usual lively mood. The staff has been vigilant about sanitation, but management has allowed them to relax on other things. 

“We’re trying to be as peppy as possible,” Van Ostrand said. “Usually we have some restrictions on what music we can play in the restaurant, but my boss said, play whatever you want, dress however you want. We get to make ridiculous specials. It keeps the group morale high.”

Through social media, more businesses and artists are reaching out to the community to offer novel services. Gild Brewing is planning a walk-up outdoor growler-fill station. Clothing boutique Betty’s Divine is offering online shopping with home delivery. A new Instagram page called Missoula Hotties lets out-of-work strip club entertainers reach clients, with a little humor (The main page says, “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s quarantine.”) Local food growers are looking for ways to deliver produce to shoppers finding empty shelves at the grocery store.  

For business owners and employees who find themselves out of work, it’s a scary time, but also a time to harness creativity and empathy. All over downtown, businesses have adopted a sign created by the Zootown Arts Community Center that says: “Distance is Just a Test of How Far Love Can Travel.” A new festival called Sequesterfest is advertising a full Saturday of local bands live streaming to anyone with time to tune in. And a lot of people have time right now.

“The most essential things are always bigger than commerce, and that’s part of what this crisis is showing us,” Jenny Montgomery said. “Community, family, friendship, integrity will still be here at the end of it. And when we do start to rebuild our lives and livelihoods, that’s the basis we’ll start from, so we need to keep those values strong.”

Erika Fredrickson is a freelance journalist based in Missoula, where she writes about technology, the environment, and lifestyle. She was the arts editor at the Missoula Independent for 10 years before it was shut down in 2018.