Credit: L. Abigail Jones / 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 These reports may become outdated quickly. This piece was reported March 31-April 1, and published Friday, April 3.

LEWISTOWN  — The weather was unseasonably cold, and the streets were full of dust and devoid of snow. 

Downtown, the traffic lights and pedestrian crossing indicators flashed simultaneously into darkness, rivaled only by the mute glow of street lights. There was no passing presence to make them stop. 

The bars and restaurants were closed. Judith Theatre was dark. Finally a lone vehicle rambled down a side street and triggered the cacophony of confused signals. That was all it took: one isolated factor to reset the system. 

Suddenly there was a man walking his dogs. A woman rocked out to her workout beats. A steady line of cars streamed up the hill, past the county courthouse and toward the McDonald’s drive-thru. As a weary-looking trucker avoided the bypass and navigated the scenic route up Main Street, I pumped my fist, and he rattled the windows of our stone-built downtown with a blare of solidarity. 

Lewistown is a hub location for many smaller, outlying communities. For that reason, in part, Central Montana Medical Center is designated as a Critical-Access hospital, with a Level 4 Trauma Center, and many other local medical providers and clinics see patients from a wide geographic radius. 

The town’s response to the coronavirus is turning, like the weather. 

Early on, the approach of the worldwide pandemic was a source of disbelief, even humor, bandied about on Facebook, where much of the conversation was happening. As the days progressed, humor was tempered with fear. Posts started to look like a doomsday calendar maintained by a character from The Walking Dead:

“Today, people rushed our stores, and there is no bread left anywhere in town for people who live paycheck to paycheck.”  

“Today, schools and churches closed.” 

“Today, the borders closed.” 

“Today, the Chinese Restaurant and KFC are permanently closed.” 

“Today, I watched an elderly woman search for toilet paper. Compassion is closed.” 

“Today, I watched someone offer her one of their remaining rolls. Compassion is open.” 

Throughout the city there are different concerns, and different perspectives.  

Artist and teacher Carol Poppenga maintains a small private art studio in a quiet corner of town. Her mother lives in an assisted-living facility. “My biggest concern is something I really don’t have control over, and that is Mom’s situation,” she said. “I can only hope that the staff where she’s at take all the precautions known to be effective to keep everyone safe. I hope the virus doesn’t get to where I live, or any of the other apartment-type facilities here in Lewistown.” 

Out on the west side of town, Rita Hofer, a Hutterite, is embracing a positive attitude. Hofer has been sewing masks for local first responders, along with her sister, Marilyn Stahl, who lives on a colony on the east side. Hofer said the health department informed the colonists on Wednesday that they can no longer eat together in the dining hall of their community kitchen, so they’ve had to change their dining practices. 

“They’re doing take-out, like a restaurant. All the food is cooked in the kitchen, and we come and take it to the homes,” Hofer said. 

Hofer said she’s following all the recommendations to stay safe. As of April 3, there have been no cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Fergus County. She lamented the situation in other Montana counties where outbreaks are already well underway. “But let’s not count ourselves out, because we are right in the center of the state,” she said. “Just however long this thing will take, nobody knows. Take it one day at a time.”

On Main Street in Lewistown, many businesses are closed, but the storefronts display cheerful signs exuding optimism. 

“I blew out my knee earlier this week. I haven’t tried to go up to the hospital — they’re busy. I think they’d get mad if I just walked in the front door.”

—Lewistown resident David McCoy

Tammy Eckhardt owns Sew Pieceful, a quilting boutique on lower Main Street. “Initially,” she said, “I think the generalization was that this wasn’t worse than the flu. But as we learned about the 1918 flu pandemic and the spread of the virus by comparing cities that shut down versus those that didn’t, I realized the importance of shutting down.” The community has been slow to adapt, she said, and Sew Peaceful itself isn’t entirely shut down — she’s providing supplies to make masks for the medical community and first responders. 

Local donors are helping with the cost for materials, and the local sewing community has stepped in to help. Her retail sales, though, “are almost non-existent.” She’s using social media as her primary source of advertising, specifically because it’s free. Eckhardt plans to offer online instruction classes, and move product sales online, but in the meantime there is “still a need in the community for more masks. I was told by a local medical entity that we cannot make enough, and nothing will be wasted.” 

Down the street, Marigold Market owner Shanna Swanson has been addressing another set of needs, selling hand-made gifts and artisanal goods by local artists.

“First, [the business] was a way to help artists get their stuff out there to people who don’t have access otherwise. After this crisis, I was actually really excited to write those checks this month, because I knew that if I could help just a little bit with my efforts to get their talent out there, it makes a difference. Some of my vendors have called me to let me know they’ve been laid off. I have to up my game, which is good. I can’t quit, knowing that my vendors need that income.”    

In a quiet neighborhood near Highland Park Elementary School, resident David McCoy stepped outside on his porch to pause and reflect. 

“The school is giving our kids the work to do at home,” he said. “I was able to take my middle one out to learn to shoot a bow. We did that for P.E. And I also took him fishing. It’s good family time.” Asked about his greatest concern regarding the pandemic, he shared one that’s common in Lewistown: “I’m worried about when life will go back to normal.” 

Asked about the brace on his leg, he shrugged. 

“I blew out my knee earlier this week. I haven’t tried to go up to the hospital — they’re busy. I think they’d get mad if I just walked in the front door.”

Mostly, he said, he wants people to understand “that it’s important to know we’ll get through it. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll get through it.”

L. Abigail Jones is a freelance writer based in Lewistown, Montana. She has been a newspaper staff writer, a radio broadcaster, and a magazine contributor for local media since 2007.