Montana Free Press editor's note: 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 They may become outdated quickly.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 15-17, and published Tuesday, March 17.
by Paul Dragovich
Dottie Wilson opened the Infinity Bake Shoppe in Havre 2017, and it quickly became a favorite among locals.
Wilson was recently out of town for two weeks. She was in Salt Lake City for her daughter’s surgery. By the time she got back home Sunday, the local mood had changed drastically.
After months of upending life around the world, the novel coronavirus is now disrupting life in Havre, a town of nearly 10,000 located 43 miles south of the Canadian border. Despite zero confirmed cases of the respiratory disease in the region, the public schools have been shuttered, sports have been halted, local hospitals have shifted to emergency-only mode and changed admittance protocols, the local university announced it would transition to online classes for every program that could do so, and people were encouraged to stay away from each other — the same measures being implemented all over the state.
By Monday, local government had added to the changes. Inmate visitations at the regional detention center were barred, non-essential court hearings were delayed, and the public library closed.
On Monday afternoon, Wilson was in her bakery preparing for Tuesday’s opening. The checkout counter was littered with cleaning supplies. She was going “above and beyond” her usual cleansing routine, she explained.
Wilson was nervous about the economic impact that might hit her business, which employs a handful of people whom she said couldn’t afford to miss a paycheck. She has already temporarily parted with one of her older employees, a precautionary move both agreed was for the best best, given the virus’ particular danger to elderly people.
Wilson, like other business owners we talked to, is nervous that the worst is yet to come. She didn’t see any impact to last week’s business. The numbers were good. And even though Saturday was slow, it wasn’t abnormal, considering that snow pummeled the area for two days.
But that was before coronavirus mania hit the area. By Monday, she had already received order cancellations, among them one for a gathering at Montana State University-Northern, whose chancellor had announced the previous day he was in self-quarantine after coming into contact with Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education, who has tested presumptively positive for COVID-19.
Tracy Job, who manages and co-owns Gary and Leo’s Fresh Foods IGA, is seeing the opposite trend at his store.
“I think there’s a problem we need to pay attention to and respond to, but I think we might have a little overreaction going on.”
—Havre Ford owner Charlie Steinmetz
Job said he began seeing changes in shoppers’ habits around the first of March. People began buying two or three times more than they usually did, he said. Then, starting last Wednesday, “it jumped up quite a bit,” he said. That was the day the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic. Shoppers have been stocking up on canned goods, pastas, flour, water, and, “for some reason,” a lot of toilet paper, he said.
“The last few few days have been fairly steady, fairly hectic,” Job said on Monday.
Job said the store has been working hard to restock the shelves, adding that “it’s been a bit of a challenge in the last couple of weeks, that’s for sure.”
He didn’t want to use the word “panic” to describe shoppers. They’re laughing about it, but also preparing, he said. He described his customers’ attitude as “better safe than sorry.”
Gary and Leo’s employs about 110 people. Management has told anyone who has a cough or fever to stay home. But he’s got plenty of staff to cover the work, Job said. And due to the recent uptick in business, a lot of employees are picking up extra hours.
Other Havre business owners were less cautious about using the word “panic.”
Charlie Steinmetz owns Havre Ford, a franchise dealer. As far as he’s concerned, it’s too early to tell what, if any, impact the coronavirus will have on his business. As of Monday, he hadn’t had any employees fail to show up. And though business was slow that day and some appointments cancelled, it was hard to pinpoint a reason, considering it had snowed all weekend.
He said he’s more concerned about the impacts of “hysteria” than of the virus.
“Maybe I’m looking at it backwards, but the panic that seems to be caused in our society at the moment is more frightening to me than a lot of other things,” Steinmetz said. “I think there’s a problem we need to pay attention to and respond to, but I think we might have a little overreaction going on.”
He said he went to Walmart and the toilet paper was “cleaned out.” He went to Gary and Leo’s and was lucky to find some.
Steinmetz is concerned that if the panic continues, it will affect his business, which employs 18 people, all of whom have kept calm and cool, he said.
He hasn’t had to really consider the possibility of cutting hours yet, he said, but it’s still pretty early.
In the meantime, Havre Ford is open for business. The service and sales departments are there for customers, Steinmetz said, using the interview as a chance to plug his business. “I can assure everybody that we’re not having a run on new vehicles right now. We got plenty in stock and we can just come in and get some deals done and not have to worry about fighting people about it like toilet paper.”
Another local business owner, Michael Garrity, opened the first of three craft breweries in town years ago. Triple Dog Brewing Co., a popular Havre watering hole, hosted a party Saturday.
Garrity said it went well. “People showed up and drank beer.”
But Garrity, like Steinmetz and Wilson, is concerned about what the future might hold. Business has slowed over the last two weeks, he’s noticed.
He understands the seriousness of the virus, but he also wants to responsibly help keep the mood light, the beer flowing, and people laughing.
He, too, has thought about the possibility of having to make some tough decisions. If he had to shut down for one or two weeks, that would put a damper a lot of things. He might have to lay off employees, he said.
Wilson, the bakery owner who, on her way back from Salt Lake City, stopped by several stores along the highway to stock up on sanitizer and toilet paper for her home and business, said she was nervous about the prospect of food service establishments being ordered to close — a restriction several other Montana counties imposed on Monday.
“If it happens it could be catastrophic,” she said. “No small business has equity to back that up. We’re not built that way.”
She had already thought about the possibility of implementing carry-out and delivery services if that were to happen.
On Tuesday, at noon, the Hill County Health Department ordered all restaurants, breweries, bars, and distilleries to close until March 24. Exceptions were made for drive-through, delivery and pick-up services.
By Ed Kemmick on Mar 16, 2020 02:33 pm
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 over the weekend of March 14-15, and published Monday, March 16.
BILLINGS — In October, after Cass Sullivan’s father, Pat Sullivan, was diagnosed with dementia, he was moved from assisted living to the memory-care unit of Highgate Senior Living in Billings.
Sullivan had been visiting her 76-year-old father three days a week, usually over the lunch hour, until last Wednesday, when Highgate, reacting to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, banned visitors to the facility.
The next day, Sullivan said, “I just suddenly realized, ‘Geez, my dad’s on the first floor.’” So, she got in her car and headed his way, calling to tell him she’d be there in 10 minutes.
Cass Sullivan snapped a photo of her father, Pat, seen through the window of his room at a senior-living facility in Billings, when she visited him last week, and later posted it on Facebook. (Photo courtesy of Cass Sullivan)“I said, ‘Stay in your bedroom and I’ll come along and see if I can get to your window.’ So that’s all we did was wave to each other and smile back and forth. But it cheered him up considerably.”
Later that day, Sullivan posted a picture of her father on Facebook, showing him smiling wanly behind a screened window in his room at Highgate.
Cass Sullivan snapped a photo of her father, Pat, seen through the window of his room at a senior-living facility in Billings, when she visited him last week, and later posted it on Facebook. (Photo courtesy of Cass Sullivan)
“I figured maybe there were other people who hadn’t thought of this,” Sullivan said. “That’s kind of why I posted it.”
It’s been hard on both of them, Sullivan said, but she feels sorrier for the people whose loved ones are unable to comprehend the scope of the crisis playing out beyond the walls of their residence.
“My dad’s one of the lucky ones who still, for the most part, knows how to use his phone,” she said. “There are many people in there that don’t.”
Brook Hovland expressed similar sentiments in regard to his situation, that of a live-event producer looking at weeks or months of cancellations.
“We’re OK, personally, our company,” Hovland said. “We’re taking a big, big financial hit. But you look around and I see stagehands, I see cleaning people, I see a lot of people that are living paycheck to paycheck, and they’re out of work for at least the next several weeks. Those are the people that are going to be really impacted.”
Hovland, the owner of DiA Events, said the cancellations started coming in almost two weeks ago, when companies with a national presence decided to halt all travel for their employees. Then, over just two days at the end of last week, he had 18 more cancellations, including the NAIA 32-team women’s collegiate basketball championship, which was supposed to be played in Billings March 18-24. Hovland was going to provide all the audio and video services for that tourney, not to mention the confetti cannons.
“I’m not getting all wound up over everything,” Hovland said. “I just know a lot of this will be rescheduled for the fall. We’re taking advantage of the time to do maintenance on equipment and get ready for when the industry starts breathing again.”
But his thoughts turned once more to all the support personnel at live events, the security people, the ushers, the ticket-takers.
“There’s a lot of money that has been lost by a lot of companies, but the biggest concern is the individuals that are going to be out on the street if they can’t afford their rent, or what have you,” Hovland said. “That’s the scariest thing to me.”
For health-care workers and first responders in Yellowstone County, local authorities have taken steps to provide them with childcare assistance. Billings Clinic, the largest health care organization in the state, announced Sunday that in the wake of Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision to close schools for two weeks, it will be providing free childcare for essential health care workers.
The care will be provided at the Billings Public Library, which has halted regular services, for the children of first responders and essential workers from Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, and RiverStone Health, the county’s public health agency.
Barbara Schneeman, the public information officer for the Unified Health Command, made up of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent, RiverStone, and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services, said the team is working on providing additional childcare services, given the size of the health care industry in Billings.
At a recent Business Healthcare Summit in Billings, Big Sky Economic Development noted that the city has 14,000 health care workers, accounting for 17 percent of the local workforce. Additionally, 40 percent of hospital inpatients in Billings come from outside Yellowstone County, and the estimated population of the Billings “Hospital Referral Region” is 620,000.
Partly because of that large presence, the Unified Health Command has been in place for many years and has already dealt with numerous public-health emergencies, Schneeman said, including the anthrax scare after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Ebola outbreak, flu-vaccine shortages, and the H1N1 flu virus of 2009.
“This group has been working together for a number of years, planning and revising plans and exercising and actually doing the work when our community has faced health care crises,” she said. But with COVID-19, she acknowledged, “it has risen to a whole other level of activity.”
“We continue to work pretty much around the clock,” she said. “It is challenging, it really is. This is an unprecedented time for all of us across the country.”
Other important steps taken so far include setting up COVID-19 testing sites, which opened Monday, at both city hospitals, with plans to use them until the county is ready to open a centralized community-testing site at the MetraPark complex. Health information phone lines have also been set up at Billings Clinic (255-8400), St. Vincent (237-8775), and RiverStone (651-6415).
The most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 response, Schneeman said, is that the situation has been changing so rapidly.
“It’s such a dynamic situation,” she said. “I huddle with my team every morning at 8:30, and we go over the work plan for literally four hours.” They decide what messages are important to communicate that day, then work on steps that can be taken to support that message.
“People are so hungry for information and need to know what’s going on, so we’ve kept it pretty solid when we’re talking about this.”
—Radio host Jason Harris
“I’m going to say a lot of times things change by noon,” Schneeman continued. “It’s a global-wide public health emergency, and we learn more every hour, almost.”
Accurate, serious-minded communication has never seemed so important to Jason Harris, radio host of the popular “Big J Show,” which is normally geared toward generating laughs and maintaining an air of boisterous irreverence.
“People are so hungry for information and need to know what’s going on, so we’ve kept it pretty solid when we’re talking about this,” Harris said.
There’s still entertainment to be had making fun of toilet-paper hoarders and conspiracy theorists, he said, but with so much misinformation circulating, “I feel like it’s kind of our job with a louder megaphone to say, ‘Nope, let’s just stick to the facts and operate on those.’”
The hunger for information is evidenced by the show’s Facebook traffic. The show has always had an active social media following, Harris said, but in the past week, interactions were up more than 300 percent, and post reaches were up more than 200 percent.
After more than 15 years on the radio, Harris said, he’s never seen anything like it. Normally, he said, there might be a local story that captures everyone’s attention for a day or two, or a big national story that is “kind of relevant but not super close to home.”
“This one,” he said, “is national and it’s local and it’s just every single day.”
Gary Buchanan, of Buchanan Capital Inc., has been in the financial-services industry for 42 years, and said the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was the only situation that came close to what’s happening now. Most startling was the plunge from record highs on Wall Street to a bear market.
“I’ve never seen anything this fast,” he said. “That’s what’s different. None of us saw this coming.”
Still, he said, there are glimmers of good news. Many of his clients have been with him for years, he said, and they have been schooled on the need to be calm and ride out the lows.
“They’ve been through enough markets to be steady,” he said, “but I think the panic on the health front is a whole new consideration.”
Buchanan applauded the efforts of state and local authorities to get out in front of the crisis, and he echoed the comments of others in saying that Montana has been fortunate that there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 here until the state had a chance to learn from what has happened elsewhere in the country and around the world.
“We’ve been lucky to have a little more time to think this thing through,” Buchanan said.
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Here’s the takeaway from the Iowa fiasco: Beware of caucuses run by political parties. But don’t panic about the integrity of most primaries and the general election, which are run by state and county election administrators.
As Tuesday morning wore on without results from Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, the long-awaited first test of the strength of President Donald Trump’s would-be challengers, both public officials and enraged commentators stoked fears that Iowa was a harbinger of chaos for the rest of the 2020 campaign. Some said it raises alarms about the broader condition of election security and the reliability of computer systems that record, tally and publish the votes. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale even suggested on Twitter Monday, without evidence, that the process was “rigged.”
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But there’s a marked difference between the Iowa caucuses and the upcoming primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as the 14 state primaries on Super Tuesday. The Iowa Democratic Party ran the caucuses, much as its counterparts in Nevada, Wyoming and several territories will do in the next few months. Party officials have less training and experience in administering the vote than do state and local election administrators who oversee most of the primaries.
Reflecting such concerns, the Democratic nominating process includes fewer caucuses this year than it did in 2016. The Democratic National Committee has called for using government-run primaries rather than party-run caucuses.
“Caucuses are run by rank amateurs. Even though we have concerns about the capacity of election officials, at least this is what they do a lot of,” said Charles Stewart, who runs MIT’s election data and science lab. “Even in the smallest of jurisdictions you run a lot of elections — you have contingency plans. The parties, bless their hearts, they don’t do this very much and that’s the bottom line.”
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, whose office will oversee the state’s primary in April, said, “The Iowa caucus is an excellent reminder of why important elections should be run by trained, skilled and experienced state and local election administrators, not political parties.” Connecticut’s results undergo a post-election audit, and all votes there are on paper.
“Connecticut’s voters should be confident that they can trust the results of our elections,” she said.
In retrospect, Iowa’s Democratic Party made one mistake after another. It introduced a new app, widely reported to have been made by a company called Shadow Inc., without sufficient testing, training of precinct captains or transparency. At the same time, it made reporting requirements more complex, so that the 1,600 Democratic volunteers who manage individual precincts were required to provide three times as many data points as in past caucuses on a brand new app many had never been trained to use. (There were also many more candidates this year, further multiplying the amount of information to be reported.) Party officials didn’t hire enough people to take reports by phone in case the system failed. And they managed expectations poorly, assuring the public that results would be published faster than ever before.
“These are probably the most prepared we’ve ever been as a party for these caucuses,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told CBS on Monday morning, while shrugging off concerns about the possibility of technical problems. “We’re ready.”
A presidential preference card used this year in the Iowa Democratic Party caucus in Fort Madison. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
This is not the first time that administrative problems have plagued the Iowa caucuses. In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucuses shortly after 1:30 a.m. by eight votes over Rick Santorum. Two weeks later, a recount showed Santorum had actually won. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign declared victory after 2:30 a.m., even though official counting was not completed until that afternoon.
This year, the brand-new technology, lack of training and overconfidence by the state party amounted to a perfect storm. Government officials said they became aware of problems in the late afternoon, when precinct chairs began to report problems logging into the app. Many gave up on the app and began calling results in — as they’d done in past elections — but the reduced number of staff meant wait times so long that precinct leaders went home before they could report the results.
“Everyone was having the same problem,” said one Des Moines official who declined to be named. “Early on, it was obvious there were going to be problems.”
The receptionist at a WeWork office building in Washington, D.C., where Shadow Inc. listed its office in campaign finance filings, told a ProPublica reporter Tuesday that the company had recently moved out. Shadow CEO Gerard Niemira did not respond to a text message seeking comment Tuesday, and the voicemail box on his cellphone was full. An email to ACRONYM — an affiliated company — went unreturned.
ProPublica is relaunching its collaborative project for a third time to cover voting during this crucial election year. We’re recruiting newsroom partners.
One reason that caucus results are difficult to count is because they have multiple tallies. If a candidate doesn’t get 15% of the vote the first time, his or her supporters can switch to a rival. Delegates are apportioned by a mathematical formula. Now, the party is going through the painstaking process of verifying three datasets: the first expression of preference, the realignment and the overall delegate numbers. Verifying each number from each precinct takes several minutes, and the process must be repeated for more than 1,600 precincts. Because the Democratic Party did take the precaution of backing up counts on paper ballots, the final results should be verifiable. State party and federal officials have expressed confidence that the outcome will be accurate and trustworthy.
In a two-minute call just after 1 a.m. with the media, Price said the party was “validating every piece of data we have within that paper trail” and would “report results with full confidence.”
“We have said all along: We had backups in place for exactly this reason,” he said.
In a statement, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said he was “glad to hear [the Iowa Democratic Party has ] a paper trail for their votes, just as we use paper ballots in all official elections in the state of Iowa.”
“I support IDP while they take their time and conduct checks and balances to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the votes,” he said.
Records show the state’s Democratic Party paid $60,000 to Shadow Inc. in two installments in November and December. The app was introduced with the intent of speeding up reporting. While local and national media began asking about the app weeks ago, the party was largely silent about its mechanics and said little about testing or training. Appearing on “Fox & Friends” Tuesday morning, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, said that the Iowa Democratic Party had declined to allow DHS to conduct vulnerability testing on the app, though he said DHS saw no signs of malicious activity. The party has put out a statement that it has confirmed there were no intrusions and that the problems were the result of a “coding issue in the reporting system.”
The confusion in Iowa does raise concerns about the rest of 2020’s caucuses, as well as states — such as Hawaii and Alaska — where parties run primaries. The Nevada State Democratic Party, which paid Shadow Inc. $58,000 in August for “technology services,” will hold its caucuses on Feb. 22. The state party did not return a call for comment about the payment or whether it is using Shadow to report returns.
Experts said that using little-tested apps can raise the risk of security breaches because hackers could take advantage of an app’s poor computer coding. Some criticized the secrecy that shrouded the app itself.
“For critical software, I always look for documented, third-party security validation and transparency into the testing process the vendor used,” said Chris Wysopal, the chief technology officer at security firm Veracode and a prominent computer security expert. “It is a big, red flag if there is secrecy about the development process used to create and test an app.”
Election observers said one lesson of Iowa is that accuracy and clarity should be valued over speed. “It’s not about election integrity — the results will be verified with paper — it’s about satisfying our need to know immediately who won,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “When we balance out what’s more important, speed or accuracy, it’s not even a close call. We should be expecting accuracy and adjusting our expectations in regards to speed.”
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