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 They may become outdated quickly.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.