Credit: Tracy / 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 They may become outdated quickly.

BUTTE — This is a city known for socializing, its wild parties and extravagant festivals. So when, on concerns about the looming spread of the novel coronavirus, the county health department last week preemptively shut down St. Patrick’s Day festivities, the annual bash that has drawn as many as 30,000 people in years past, there was some astonishment across Montana.

Up until the last minute, Butte had made plans to go forward with its big, often messy annual Irish parade and party. But when the decision was made, Butte’s residents jumped into the other thing they seem to do best — mobilizing a community response to a crisis.

Father Patrick Beretta, a Catholic priest assigned to Butte’s Immaculate Conception and St. Patrick Parishes, said the city is reacting in ways that align with its history and collective memory of trauma. Butte, a historic copper mining town that now has about 35,000 residents, has weathered deadly mining accidents, long labor strikes, and economic slumps, and 102 years ago was the Montana epicenter of the Spanish flu pandemic. The illness killed more than 1,000 people in Butte, roughly one-third of Montana’s death toll from the virus when it swept through America in 1918-19. 

Beretta, who held his Sunday services this week on Facebook Live and via local radio, said social distancing is particularly hard in this tight-knight community. But in part because so many people know of long-ago relatives lost to the 1918 flu, Butte is taking this pandemic seriously. As of March 26, the city now has four confirmed cases out of Montana’s 71, but bars, restaurants, schools, and many businesses were closed before Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide closure order. The consequences for Butte may be different than other towns in Montana.

“I think that Butte is by nature an extraordinarily social community,” Beretta said. “The separation is very difficult on Butte people. They are people who support each other with close contact, by seeing each other in their homes, by bringing food to each other. That has been taken away from them.”

Sabrina Holland, a Butte native who now lives in Bozeman, put her computer skills and school connections to work when the COVID-19 crisis shut down schools across Montana. Holland has created a map of all of the school districts in the state that are offering continuing meal service and deliveries to kids who depend on school breakfasts and lunches. 

Holland says Butte’s long history of hard times gives people here a different perspective. Her own great-grandfather, Daniel Holland, lost his arm in a Butte mining accident, then died from the Spanish flu in 1919. When he was out of work sick, his friends ran his campaign for county coroner, which he won before he passed away.

“Butte people have a sense of history that is so deep within us, that we see a current crisis as not a current crisis, but another thing to get through,” said Holland. “It’s such a Butte mentality. We’ve been through so much, we can survive.”

Several local groups have stepped up with donation and delivery services to help people who have lost work and been forced into isolation for medical reasons. 

Erik Kayser and his wife, Francis, have organized a collective of seamstresses in town to make face masks. They’re not medical grade, but they are being sewn with pockets that can be used to insert filter material as protective barriers for people facing health risks. Kayser said the group has distributed more than 100 hand-sewn masks since Saturday, and is collecting donations of materials and money for a bigger push.

He said that while not everyone in town is taking the threat as seriously as they should, most people here are protective of Butte’s older folks, who are at special risk for complications from COVID-19.

“It’s been wonderful, it’s showing the true spirit of Butte,” said Kayser. “In the darkest times, this community just comes together.”

In the days since COVID-19 closures began shutting down businesses and schools in Butte, Valerie Nielson and her sister-in-law have been collecting, sorting, and delivering food donations across the city. They started the project with a Facebook page called “Butte’s Pop-up Pantry,” uncertain exactly who would need and who would give, but sure that there would be people in town who were hurting. Since Saturday, they’ve made 200 food deliveries to families across the city.

“We’ve heard stories of, ‘my husband lost his job and we don’t have the income anymore,’” she said. “One thing I love about this town — when people see a need, they are absolutely willing to drop everything and help. I can’t even explain how overwhelming it’s been to see who wants to help and donate. Even the people who are getting donations themselves want to give back.”