Hi-Line Living: COVID-19 hits the Hi-Line
Last updated 4/3/2020 at 12:54pm
The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly approaching 1 million detected cases and has taken the lives of more than 50,000 people world-wide, but it has also changed the lives of nearly everyone in the world including those in Montana, which had seen five deaths by Thursday morning.
Novel coronavirus 19, which causes COVID-19, was detected in China in December, and from there spread to more than 190 countries around the globe, including all 50 states in the U.S., which now has more known cases of the virus than any other nation.
March 12, Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency, with President Donald Trump declaring a nation-wide state of emergency the next day. On that day came the news that Montana had seen its first four confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In the weeks since then, been numerous state and local ordershave been made that, among other things, closed all K-12 schools, restricted access to public facilities, athletic facilities and many private business including bars and restaurants which can only offer pick-up and delivery services.
March 26, Gov. Bullock issued a stay-at-home order which told people to stay in their homes except for essential business - aside from outdoor activities for recreation - and practice social distancing, in which one distances themselves from other people by at least six feet and leaves their home as little as possible.
This, along with washing one's hands often and thoroughly and making sure not to sneeze on their hands or touch their face, will help prevent the spread of the virus. This is not just to prevent others from contracting the virus, but to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed by those with it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most people who contract COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate illness with flu-like symptoms - sore throat, dry cough, headache, diarrhea and so on - but will recover without needing treatment. However, the disease can be fatal, especially to people with suppressed immune systems, people with underlying health issues like diabetes, cancer, respiratory conditions and so on, as well as the elderly.
Afflicted and Affected
While the coronavirus has afflicted hundreds of thousands of people world-wide, it has affected nearly everyone on the planet, including residents of north-central Montana.
Businesses and industries across the Hi-Line, and the world, are facing serious financial challenges trying to deal with the drastic loss of business that has come in the wake of COVID-19. This has hit small businesses particularly hard.
Bullock recently ordered that all non-essential businesses shut down to help contain the spread of the virus, but even those that have been able to stay open in some capacity are seeing revenues drop dramatically.
"I think things remain uncertain. I mean, these times are unprecedented. And the most difficult thing in running a business is uncertainty," said Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss. "I think business owners can weather a calamity like this if they know in advance that it's going to be a week or two weeks, or a month ... however, with such an open-ended problem that we have right now from a calendar perspective, it breeds uncertainty. And not a lot of good, in the economic development world, comes from uncertainty."
Tuss said virtually any business that relies on walk-in traffic is going to have trouble maintaining stability.
This is certainly true for John Davison, owner of Wolfer's Diner and The Lunchbox in Havre. He said since COVID-19 his business has dropped to less than a quarter of what it was before and keeping his establishments open is costing him money.
"I hope that we can weather the storm," he said, "We've been here for a long time and I'd hate for something like this to be the end of it all."
He said recent stimulus packages passed by Congress and signed by the president look very promising and could help his business and employees, but he is still a bit murky on the details.
"I am trying to look into those, although a lot of it is pretty confusing," Davison said.
"Hopefully all the stimulus packages will help us get to a point where we're not losing a whole bunch of money like we are right now," he added.
Davison said he has no way of knowing how long his business can hold out under the present circumstances, but he said he's never going to give up.
"There's no quit in me," he said.
Hope amid chaos
Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson said he sees COVID-19 affecting many aspects of the economy in Havre and the county.
"It's having a tremendous impact on the business in this community," he said.
He said nearly everyone in the community has had to change their lives drastically to stay in line with CDC-recommended social distancing guidelines, and that even in the last two weeks it's had an effect on the mentality of everyone in the community.
"It's got a huge impact, not just on business in terms of dollars and cent, it's got a massive impact on people's minds," Peterson said.
He said the inability to visit with family members, go to work, or just go outside for recreation has put mental strain on an active community.
"We're used to getting out, we're used to going places, and a lot of that's been shut off," he added.
However, Peterson said, despite the stress he believes that the people of Havre and Hill County are handling themselves admirably.
"I really want to compliment the people, by and large they're doing an awesome job," he said, "They're trying hard. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do, and we're not used to it. This is all new to us."
Residents of Hill County are not the only ones in the area to have seen their lives change drastically in the wake of COVID-19.
Liberty County Chamber of Commerce Coordinator Lynda VandeSandt has seen her own life take a wild turn as well.
"I have auto-immune arthritis, so I do self-isolation," VandeSandt said.
She said has effectively been running the Chamber of Commerce from her home for the last two weeks.
She said a lot of her time these days is spent addressing the concerns of local businesses and trying to keep the community appraised of how the pandemic is affecting things in Liberty County, as it seems the businesses of her county facing similar problems to those of Hill County.
"Two weeks ago, some business decided to shut down, others stayed open as long as they could," VandeSandt said.
She said, since the governor issued the stay-at-home order last week, businesses in the area cut their hours even more, although she said she hadn't had anyone come to her with concerns that their businesses were in danger of closing entirely.
"I've been doing this for 16 years now, they're pretty honest with me," VandeSandt said.
She said she thinks the people of her community trying to keep things going.
"I see in Chester, in this area, people trying to support these local businesses as much as they can," she said.
VandeSandt said she thinks her community is going to come out stronger than it was before.
"I think we have a stronger sense of community through this," she said.
She said her neighbors who know about her condition will offer to get things for her when they go into town, and those small acts of kindness can have a huge impact on people and mean a great deal to her.
She said the local religious institutions have also been very inspiring in their commitment to helping people through the crisis as much as they can.
"I know several of the local pastors are getting on (Facebook) once a day. Popping on and giving people and encouraging word," VandeSandt said.
She said we should keep in touch with those close to us not just for their sake, but for ours. She said she now makes a point to call two people a day.
"Who can I call today, to just chat, and see how they're doing?," she said she asks herself.
VandeSandt said people should stay informed but try not to mire themselves in the bad news of the day and make themselves more depressed.
"You have to find some humor, you gotta able to find some joy, you gotta be able to find some hope," she said.
She said she sees the people of her county helping each other out, in much the same way Peterson said he saw in Hill County, highlighting the local food bank in particular.
"I know everyone is trying to help as much as they can with the food bank. People are really stepping up with the donations," she said
Havre has seen its own share of people helping their community.
Gary & Leo's Fresh Foods has initiated a food delivery program in cooperation with North Central Senior Center to deliver groceries to people at risk of infection. The service runs on Mondays and Thursdays with customers able to call in order between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and deliveries running from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to within a mile of Havre.
Gary & Leo's Co-owner Laura Malisani said the response to this program, which began operations March 19, has seen its number of orders grow consistently since then, and the people have said some inspiring things about it.
"'This is my lifeline; without this I would be too afraid to go get food.' That, I think, is a really powerful reason to do it," she said.
Malisani said they now get between 15 and 20 orders a day, and they are in the process of making an app that will allow people to shop online to have items delivered or picked up.
"We hope to have, in the next two to four weeks, a 'click and collect' system set up," she said.
She said, in the meantime, they are looking to set up an email address people can use to order groceries.
Malisani said she hopes the number of orders continues to rise for the sake of the community.
"The more orders we can get, the more people can stay home, and the safer they will be," she said.
She made a point of saying that seniors are not the only people at risk during the current crisis, and she believes that people can responsibly determine whether they, or a loved one fits in the category of "at-risk."
Malisani also said she's encouraged by how people have adapted to this new way of life.
"I'm so impressed with how quickly we, as a community, have been able to change our habits to help keep each other healthy and safe. And I really see that throughout the store," she said.
Malisani also said she appreciates other business doing their part not just to survive but to help the community when they can.
"The ingenuity of so many of the businesses in our area, it's amazing," she said.
She said that, despite progress, there are many people who are still trying to figure things out and that we should be kind to each other as we confront our confusion and discomfort.
"We're navigating very uncertain times, just like everybody else we're figuring out what we need to do to adapt to these uncertain times and make sure we're providing for our communities," she said.
Gary & Leo's is not the only Havre institution to offer a helping hand to the elderly.
Others include the Havre Elks Lodge, which has offered to run errands and deliver groceries for people older than 60 as well as other at-risk populations.
Timber Creek Village Assisted Living of Havre has made baskets of supplies for elderly people outside their retirement village which will be distributed through the churches of Havre.
Angel Care in Havre has offered to help with shopping or run errands.
Many others around the region are sewing masks for Northern Montana Health Care.
And the Hi-Line Helping Hands Facebook group is letting its members post requests and offers of assistance for people in the area.
Mark Peterson said many organizations that he doesn't even know about are helping people in the Hi-Line area and he is impressed by the number of people in the community who have been stepping up to the plate to help their fellow citizens out in these uncertain times.
"The people in this community are unbelievable," he said.
Peterson said anyone in Havre or Hill County who wants to help their community or has a program they want signal boosted should contact the Hill County Public Health Department, which he says is the local government's point-of-contact for the public during the pandemic.