A protester calls for the end of coronavirus restrictions at the state Capitol on Sunday, April 19, 2020. Credit: Brad Tyer / MTFP
Listen to Brad Tyer discuss the rally with Yellowstone Public Radio’s Nicky Ouellet

HELENA — More than three hundred Montana citizens and multiple Republican candidates for statewide office gathered at the state Capitol in Helena on Sunday, flouting federal, state, and public health agency social distancing recommendations to express a range of opinions centered on the belief that it’s time for state directives closing schools and businesses to end. 

Similar protests in recent days have occurred in Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah, Indiana, Texas, and other states. 

The rally, organized on Facebook, began around 1 p.m. and featured no speakers or public pronouncements. It was an opportunity, rather, for a quiet if vibrant public demonstration of pushback against directives issued by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. As of Sunday morning, the state reported having tested almost 11,000 people for the disease, with 433 confirmed cases and 10 deaths attributed to the virus. 

Bullock initially closed Montana schools March 16, and on March 20 directed the closure of bars, gyms, theaters and other businesses where people gather. On March 26, Bullock directed Montanans to “stay at home” and closed all “nonessential” business activity. That directive also prohibited all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a household or place of residence. The closures were later extended, and are currently set to expire April 24. 

Credit: Brad Tyer / MTFP

That’s not soon enough for the people Montana Free Press spoke with at Sunday’s rally. Three attendees, who declined to identify themselves beyond saying that they are residents of Helena, said they want to see an immediate and complete rescission of the restrictions. Shy of that, they agreed, they would hope to see Montana businesses disobey the closure orders and re-open of their own accord. 

The three — two men and one woman, all in their 40s or 50s — broadly agreed that the coronavirus threat has been overblown by primarily Democratic politicians eager to undermine President Donald Trump and oversold by media institutions quick to induce public panic. They denied that closure policies may have contributed to Montana’s relatively low number of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. 

They expressed unanimous distrust of Bullock’s honesty, competence, and motives. 

“How many times did Bullock say he wasn’t going to run for Senate?” one of the men asked. 

“And then [Senate minority leader Chuck] Schumer called? Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that all had something to do with this,” he said, referring to the closures. 

The three repeated common and widely debunked talking points popular among public health emergency deniers claiming that COVID-19 is “no worse than the flu.” 

“There are 16 cases in Lewis and Clark County, and it’s been the same 16 cases for two weeks. Montana hasn’t even had a peak,” the woman said, suggesting that more people are likely to commit suicide as a result of economic distress than die from COVID-19. 

They expressed concern for a “successful hair salon owner” of their acquaintance who had to not only close her business, but put 16 stylists out of work in the process. They expressed regret for a child unable to attend graduation ceremonies after “four years of hard work.” One said she was tired of being bullied by Helena “socialists.”

Across the crowd, another women who spoke with MTFP after confirming that she was not being recorded, expressed more elaborate conspiracy theories claiming that the virus was created by a cabal of global elites, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as a fear-inducing tool providing cover for the suppression of individual liberties. She said she had not decided yet whether Trump, who recently issued calls on Twitter to “liberate” protesters of such restrictions in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia, is a figure of resistance to that plan or a “puppet” of such forces. She said she has lost half her income due to Montana’s economic closures. 

Credit: Brad Tyer / MTFP

She was one of very few rally attendees who wore a mask, X-ed over the mouth with red tape, which she claimed was for costume effect only. Otherwise, protective masks were rare on any but the reporters and camera operators recording the event. No apparent attempts at social distancing were observed. People congregated in the dozens around the sidewalk below the Capitol’s north lawn, and for the roughly two-hour duration of the event a parade of people carrying signs and walking in groups circumnavigated the Capitol grounds. A few openly carried firearms, many carried American flags, and one brandished a sign offering “FREE HUGS *virtual hugs only *subject to offensiveness algorithm” on one side and “UR SCIENCE IS NOT MY RELIGION” on the other.

While the rally’s subject was ostensibly economic, it had a distinctly political tenor. Trump-branded hats and slogans were predominant. The campaign bus of Republican state senator and gubernatorial candidate Al Olszewski was parked prominently at the curb, and later circled the streets surrounding the Capitol. Olszewski, a doctor, joined the crowd walking the sidewalks with an American flag mask strapped loosely around his neck. Tables and signage promoted the candidacies of Republican House candidate Joe Dooling, Republican House candidate Debra Lamm, and Republican state auditor candidates Scott Tuxbury and Troy Downing. Republican secretary of state candidate Forrest Mandeville was also in attendance. There was no visible presence of Democrats.

The Billings Gazette recently reported that Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry processed 76,042 unemployment benefit payments totalling $25,307,084.91 between March 16 and April 7. During the week ending April 12, 31,000 Montanans filed unemployment payment requests.

On Tuesday, April 14, state Republican legislative leadership lodged the first public complaint against the governor’s coronavirus restrictions, calling for Bullock to “rethink” his COVID-19 response and “implement more strategic measures in an effort to re-engage our economy once again.”   

Credit: Brad Tyer / MTFP

On Friday, April 17, a day after President Trump announced guidelines to re-open the American economy in phases keyed to pandemic trend criteria, Bullock signalled that he will announce plans for a phased rescission of coronavirus restrictions this week. On Saturday, Trump named Montana as one of several states that will begin re-opening on Friday, April 24. Bullock’s office reiterated that day that that state’s phased re-opening plans are not yet finalized.

Public health experts say that loosening current economic and social distancing restrictions will necessitate vastly expanded COVID-19 testing and contact tracing capabilities to track and control further outbreaks. As of Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 720,000 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and more than 37,000 deaths. 

Montana has among the fewest reported cases of any state, in a near tie with neighboring Wyoming and just behind North Dakota, neither of which has implemented a statewide stay-at-home order. Idaho, which implemented a stay-at-home order March 25 that remains in effect, has more than 1,600 cases and 44 deaths. South Dakota, which does not have a statewide order, has more than 1,500 cases and 7 deaths. 

A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released last week found that 89% of Democrat respondents and 72% of Republicans said the U.S. “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” A Monmouth University poll released the previous week found that 3% of Democrats and 11% of Republicans nationally thought their state government’s measures aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus had been excessive.

Those numbers suggest that the views expressed at the Capitol on Sunday aren’t widely representative in Montana. But for a couple of hours, they got an airing in a supportive crowd. And every protester Montana Free Press spoke with expressed appreciation for the opportunity to be heard. 

After starting professional life covering music for the Houston (Texas) Press in his hometown, Brad has worked as an editor at the Texas Observer in Austin and the Missoula (Montana) Independent. Along the way he's freelanced for publications including High Country News and the Los Angeles Review of Books.