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 They may become outdated quickly.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 25-26, and published Friday, March 27.
HELENA — You don’t need a horror movie to scare Helenans today. The coronavirus pandemic is here, detected first in a federal employee last week.
A government town of 32,000, Helena is coping, so far. Some businesses were still open this week, before the governor signed a stay-at-home shelter order effective Saturday, March 28. On social media, Helenans are encouraging residents to shop locally and buy gift cards. Some restaurants provide takeout and delivery and advertise online and on TV, reminding patrons of limited offerings.
But Helena’s downtown centerpieces — historic Last Chance Gulch and its connected walking mall — are deserted at lunchtime.
Helena traffic is much lighter. The Helena Regional Airport parking lot is nearly empty. Some big state and federal buildings downtown are closed. Entertainment venues like the Myrna Loy Center and Grandstreet Theatre are dark. Downtown parking is not being enforced. Carroll College is teaching students online, and has moved spring graduation ceremonies to December. Helena police are limiting non-emergency contact to protect officers and staff. Hundreds of state employees are working at home. And big-box stores in Helena’s valley were busy Thursday helping residents stock up to face the governor’s shelter order.
“Like everybody, we are very anxious how this plays out in Helena. We’re placing our trust in the community to heed our warnings.”—Andrea Groom, vice president of communications, St. Peter’s Health
Montana economists always note that government employees stabilize the gyrations of a wobbling economy. But this pandemic has changed the calculus and social norms here.
The Windbag Saloon & Grill, housed in a 138-year-old building that was once Big Dorothy’s brothel, is closed. The 50 staff got a paid week off and perishable food before the owners shuttered the iconic saloon under county health department orders issued March 16.
“It’s been challenging,” said Windbag majority owner Matt Schmechel, who was looking forward to a banner year with the start of spring, St. Patrick’s Day, and March Madness basketball on the big screens.
“It’s really hard for the staff,” Schmechel said of laid-off cooks, bartenders, a bookkeeper, a payroll tech, wait staff, and dishwashers. “But public health is priority one.”
Windbag managers are helping employees fill out unemployment insurance forms while Schmechel checks on assistance from government agencies and his insurance carrier.
For the future, Schmechel wants certainty from leaders, and to know when restaurants and bars can open safely and for good.
“We’re optimistic,” he said. “When we reopen, we’ll be rockin’ and rollin’ and firing on all cylinders.”
Shannon Lewis is a state employee who is working from home with her partner, who has a preexisting health condition. Sheltering in place since March 13, Lewis and her partner rarely go out, shop carefully, and clean meticulously when they return.
In her spare time, Lewis, an accomplished seamstress, is sewing masks for workers at St. Peter’s Health.
“Quilting bees and crafters shouldn’t be making masks for hospitals to save the world,” Lewis said. “But I feel motivated to try to do something. I’m also scared to death for all these health care workers.”
On Helena’s west flank, the 8,500-acre Fort William H. Harrison houses the Montana National Guard’s Joint Forces Headquarters, Army Reserve training facility, and the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospital, where vets from around the state and region travel to get health care. The fort is rigorously screening visitors and employees, the National Guard now has a closed-base policy, and all VA medical facilities are screening for signs of respiratory illness and exposure to COVID-19.
The VA is working to calm vets’ fears, telling them they don’t have to stockpile prescriptions and can rely on the VA for telemedicine, medications, and in-person care.
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Just inside the gate entrance at the VA hospital, a white VA police vehicle sits with its emergency lights flashing while personnel ask visitors and employees questions in search of coronavirus symptoms.
Maurie Knutson, a 93-year-old World War II U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who was a tailgunner in B-29 bombers in Guam, resides in a retirement community that’s locked down. Knowing what’s happening, he said, he feels safe “holed up” in his room.
“We’re well taken care of,” Knutson said, but he acknowledged that it’s “hard” not to see his daughter and son. “But that too will come to pass.”
St. Peter’s Health, the local hospital, meanwhile, has been preparing for the pandemic. Visitors are prohibited except in certain circumstances, and those entering are screened.
While Lewis and Clark County had eight confirmed cases as of Friday morning, the hospital had no in-patient COVID-19 cases, said Andrea Groom, vice president of communications. But that could change. Hospital staff have implemented their disaster plan and are communicating with public officials and other hospitals and administrators in the region and nationwide. They’re doing inventory daily and checking personal protective equipment, prepping for a surge, Groom said.
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Hospital staff have reached out to the media, putting their chief medical officer on TV to deliver updates and ask citizens to “stay home.”
“Like everybody, we are very anxious how this plays out in Helena,” Groom said, adding that social distancing is the best defense for now. “We’re placing our trust in the community to heed our warnings. We believe that together we can come out on the other side of this by beating COVID-19 in the Helena area.”
Life at home for the young and old has changed, too. Competition for laptops and bandwidth has increased as kids download education programs and adults use Slack and Zoom for communication at work. Local internet providers and tech-support businesses say they’re scrambling to help customers get hardware and software in place.
Allison Dale-Riddle, a survey researcher and author with a Ph.D. in political science and quantitative social science, has seen her family and work worlds turned upside down as the pandemic reshapes society, politics, and policy to focus on the virus.
Her 8- and 10-year-old boys are studying online from home and, with hockey season over, have energy they can’t expend roughhousing with friends.
“I’ve been so impressed,” she said. Teachers are working hard to engage with students, and “they’re not treating this as a vacation.”
“The social part has been the hardest thing for the kids to adjust to,” she said.
Still, Dale-Riddle said, she cherishes the time she gets to spend with family.
“We were always busy trying to get them off to school, lunches made, etcetera,” she said. “Now it’s like we can be relaxed, though we do have a daily schedule.”
Nancy Harper is a Carroll College theater instructor who is teaching online and caring for her 98-year-old mother, Dorothy, who lives in a Helena retirement community that’s locked down.
“Her spirits are pretty good,” Harper said. “She’s just miffed that nobody comes by. Your heart just breaks for them.”
Online outreach doesn’t work with Nancy’s mother. That’s why Nancy’s brother, Hal Harper, a former speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, stops outside Dorothy’s window to try to talk to her.
Dorothy thinks “some stranger is out there waving his arms at her.”
“Human beings are not meant to be hermits,” Harper said. “We’re flocks of birds — we have to be together.”
This story was updated March 29, 2020, to correct Andrea Groom’s first name.