A construction site at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club in Big Sky, photographed April 13, 2020. Credit: Jake Rayapati / MTFP

BIG SKY — It’s quitting time in Big Sky.

The parade starts down Lone Mountain Trail around 3:30 p.m. and lasts steadily for two and a half hours, truck after truck coming down the hill on roads weaving through resorts and homes. There are pickups, flatbeds, trucks with toppers, trucks with racks, trucks with ladders, cars and SUVs. Most carry one person, though some have many more. 

A white pickup departs the exodus and parks. Four men pile out, all clad in neon yellow, and walk into the Conoco station. Over the next few minutes they file back out, one at a time. One carries a six-pack of Blue Moon. The next has a PBR tallboy and something wrapped in aluminum foil. The third, a bit older, has a diet Pepsi and a beef stick. Finally, the driver walks out with an energy drink. 

Inside the station, social distancing is attempted. Two side-by-side lines of workers wearing orange vests, paint-stained Carhartts, and fly fishing buffs over their mouths wait to check out. The lines aren’t shoulder-to-shoulder, but they aren’t six feet apart, either. Cashiers behind a plexiglass window scan and fill the orders: a candy bar and two packs of yellow American Spirits, an 18-pack of Bud Light. A sign asks customers to pay in cash if they can.

The white truck backs up and turns back onto Lone Mountain Trail, joining a line of trucks displaying a who’s who of Gallatin County builders painted on the driver’s-side doors. They’re all in the left turn lane, headed back toward Bozeman.

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Gallatin County has been the epicenter of Montana’s COVID-19 outbreak, with 139 cases as of April 15, but construction work, deemed essential in Montana under Gov. Steve Bullock’s March 26 stay-at-home directive, has continued in Big Sky, part of which stretches into Madison County, which has recorded 8 COVID-19 cases. 

While construction companies have implemented social distancing measures and shuttered some job sites, COVID-19 has been transmitted at work sites where, until recently, workers continued to be bussed in, working shoulder to shoulder and taking breaks in trailers where it’s not possible to maintain six feet of separation from fellow workers.

Six workers at the $400 million Montage Big Sky luxury resort construction site at the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club tested positive last month, the Gallatin City-County Health Department announced Monday. 

On March 24, two individuals associated with a single subcontractor tested positive for COVID-19, said Suffolk Construction, the Boston-based general contractor for the project.

“We immediately required anyone in contact with the two infected individuals on the jobsite, including their entire subcontracting team, to self-quarantine for 14 days and provide a medical note assuring they were symptom-free before returning to the jobsite,” the company said in an statement emailed to Montana Free Press on Tuesday. 

In an interview on Tuesday, April 14, Gallatin City-County public health officer Matt Kelley said the company did the right thing in sending exposed workers home after the positive tests, but that workers then scattered to counties across the state, where they were later tested. Because of that, Kelley said, the extent of the outbreak — six positive cases — was not known until Friday. 

“The main thing for people in Big Sky to know is we do not have a large number of active cases.”

—Gallatin City-County public health officer Matt Kelley

The workers who tested positive are from Gallatin, Cascade, Missoula, and a fourth Montana county that Kelley declined to specify because doing so poses a risk of allowing identification of the individual. 

Since Bullock’s stay-at-home order was put in place, many Big Sky residents have raised questions about whether construction work is legitimately “essential,” and could be a vector for the spread of COVID-19, Kelley said.

But the governor’s directive categorizes construction as an essential activity, in part because such work intersects with public health infrastructure, Kelley said. For instance, an expanded ICU unit is currently under construction at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman, Kelley said.

“That is probably the most essential work going on right now,” Kelley said. 

Other construction projects fall under the directive’s categorical exclusion for essential activities, even if they may not serve as pressing a public purpose. 

“It’s hard to quantify a way to assign essentialness to those projects,” Kelley said.

Kelley described Suffolk Construction’s response to the outbreak as appropriate.

“We were the first Montana company to implement third-party medical temperature checks for all individuals entering the job site, we are mandating six-feet social distancing enforced by audible warning devices, and we are thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting all at-risk areas,” Suffolk said in a statement emailed to MTFP. “We continue to foster open dialogue on our job sites and strongly encourage our subcontractors to communicate all safety concerns so they can be immediately addressed.”

The Gallatin City-County Health Department has not received notice of a positive test conducted in the past two weeks that is associated with the site, Kelley said.

“The main thing for people in Big Sky to know is we do not have a large number of active cases,” Kelley said.

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Across Gallatin County, construction work continues, but at reduced capacity due to the risk of coronavirus transmission, contractors said. 

Chris Lohss, owner and president of Gallatin Gateway-based Lohss Construction, said in an interview that he contracted COVID-19 from an architect friend and tested positive for the virus on March 21. Lohss said he passed the virus on to his wife, as well as a few other people, but not to any of his employees. 

Lohss, a 49-year-old who competed in a 24-hour mountain bike race in February, said the disease is “the only time I’ve been sick like this in my life.” He said he is still not feeling 100%. Lohss said he was not hospitalized, but as of Monday he remained in quarantine.

After Bullock announced the stay-at-home order, Lohss said, he gave all his employees the option to be laid off so they could file for unemployment benefits. He said 10 of his 40 employees decided to stop working due to personal health concerns or family responsibilities, including caring for children or elderly parents. 

Montana’s construction industry accounted for 4,048 unemployment claim filings in March, second only to the food service and accommodations industry, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Lohss said his company is currently working on custom homes in Big Sky. He said his business is operating at about 60% capacity, having implemented social distancing measures, limited crew size on sites that require close contact, and shut down two sites altogether. 

Crystal Fiedler, showroom manager at Distinctive Lighting in Bozeman and chairwoman of the Southwest Montana Building Industry Association, said other Montana construction companies are taking similar measures. Additionally, she noted, some clients have postponed new projects, and there have been some supply-chain disruptions for materials, including lighting fixtures, made in China.

Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, said there are two ways to look at COVID-19’s impacts on the construction industry. The first is through the lens of economic stagnation. 

“Construction requires growth. If growth stops, the only construction is just repair,” Barkey said.

The second is through post-shutdown recovery, he said. It may be a while until the economic climate returns to normal, but when it does, “Construction is going to be one of the [industries] that pops up more quickly,” Barkey said.

Many small construction companies are accustomed to weathering boom-and-bust cycles, Barkey said, but overall demand for construction services tends to be durable. In Bozeman, for instance, the city’s housing action plan calls for construction of more than 5,000 new houses in the next five years, he said.

In the short term, some construction jobs are likely to face continuing delays as office staffers limit personal interactions, said Gallatin County Planning Director Sean O’Callaghan. The planning department has halted its on-site inspections, meaning some permits will not be issued, and those projects will be paused, O’Callaghan said.

“Most people have been reasonable to deal with and understand the circumstances,” he said. “A few people who have timelines and other things really want to move forward, but we ask people to understand the situation. We’re doing what we can to help them.”

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.