BUTTE, Mont. — The little town of Libby, a former mining hub of 2,700 that’s closer to Canada and Idaho than to most of Montana’s big cities, is no stranger to distances. So when Montana’s governor announced on March 15 that the state’s schools were closing as a social distancing measure to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus, Libby schools superintendent Craig Barringer responded differently than his colleagues in more densely populated states.
Two-thirds of the 800 students in his far-flung district ride the bus and probably wouldn’t be able to come to school to collect lunches or homework assignments. Instead, the schools would deliver to them. He posted sign-up sheets and within hours had 16 buses full of teams of two ready to go.
“We’re pretty isolated,” Barringer said in interview. “It’s a beautiful place, but we’re a long ways from everything. … We are living in uncharted waters,” he added. “We’ll do everything we can to make this a little easier on people.”
That means a 100-mile bus ride to deliver lunch and homework packets to a single fourth-grader. When the school kitchens resumed after spring break, Barringer deployed his buses to deliver lunches to both kids and senior citizens and other high-risk people in Libby who aren’t able to go out.
Such is life in the country’s fourth-largest state, a place known for wide-open spaces, rugged individualism, and tight-knight small communities. It’s also a place with one of the nation’s oldest populations — nearly 18% of its residents are 65 or older. Though older people are most vulnerable to the virus that causes Covid-19, many live far from the nearest hospital, and most of those are relatively small.
Here in Montana — with 1 million people spread over an area 19 times the size of Massachusetts, and 45 documented cases, mostly in larger cities — the response has been something of a microcosm of the national reaction: a patchwork of closures and protective measures that have varied from place-to-place. But it also reflects the unique character of a state where the government has been remarkably practical, but there remain pockets of mistrust of big government and people take matters into their own hands. Even where there were no formal disruptions to business, people began staying home. In towns where the restaurants and bars remained open, business was not great, tables and counters were going empty. And yet, many resisted.
In many ways, it’s been a combination of the state’s relative remoteness, small population, and political will that has allowed it to get out front of some other places in its pandemic response.
Last Friday, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the closure of all bars, restaurants, health clubs, casinos, and places where crowds would gather. Neighboring Wyoming issued a similar order a day earlier. Meanwhile in Idaho, Montana’s western neighbor, which has roughly twice as many confirmed Covid-19 cases, the governor has left even school closure decisions up to local governments.
“Both young and older Montanans, in urban and rural communities, have tested positive for coronavirus making it even more clear that this virus impacts us all and that these actions are imperative to protecting our friends and neighbors,” Bullock said in a news release announcing his decision.
The governor, a Democrat at the end of his second term who is running for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Steve Daines, said the state faces “extraordinary health risks.”
Bullock’s order followed a smattering of local closures that began on March 16 when Butte, a copper mining town and host of legendary St Patrick’s Day celebrations that draw up to 30,000 people, took the extraordinary step of shutting down bars and restaurants and canceling the annual holiday parade. County health officials in larger cities including Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings followed suit. Later in the week, the Montana Standard newspaper reported that Butte had no arrests on St Patrick’s Day, for the first time in recent memory.
But not everyone believes the response is warranted. John Runkle, owner of the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak, in the most remote corner of northwestern Montana, said in a phone interview the day before Bullock announced the closures that his bar wouldn’t shut down.
“We don’t worry about the coronavirus up here. We’re an hour away from the nearest minor city and there aren’t any cases here,” said Runkle. “We’re taking precautions. On the other hand, I still think a lot of this is hype.”
That sentiment persists in pockets, but is growing less prevalent. One Facebook post from a Great Falls bar about a “Coronavirus Party” was been pulled down, and there is a shift in attitude toward focusing on community protections and charity donations. Counties close to national parks are concerned about a steady influx of visitors and tourists.
Its remoteness has given Montana time to get ahead of other states in other proactive steps. Last week, for example, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath advised judges across the state to review case rosters and release “without bond, as many prisoners as you are able.”
Local newspapers, cut to the bone like some many across the country, lost most of their dedicated health and science reporters years ago, but even so, as the pandemic has spread and consumed much of the state’s attention, local coverage of the virus ramped up. Rick Weiss, director of SciLine, a Washington, D.C.-based service that offers assistance and expertise to news reporters on science stories, said it’s a challenging time for local news outlets everywhere.
“Local news outlets have largely lost any dedicated health reporters they may once have had, which means general assignment reporters or others pulled off of other desks are picking up the burden, often with little science background and lacking any kind of a contact list of experts who could help them,” Weiss said in an email, noting that in a media briefing last week for 200 reporters, 44% worked for local news outlets.
And while news deserts have created serious issues, Weiss said outlets are stepping up as the pandemic spreads.
“Many want to know what to tell their local readers/listeners/viewers about what to expect locally, how their local hospital is likely to handle things and in general what residents in their media area can do to stay healthy and accommodate to the isolation.”
But larger public-health issues remain, including the nationwide problem of a lack of widespread testing. To date, the state has tested nearly 1,000 people, ahead of other areas on a per capita scale, but not enough tests to cover everyone potentially exposed.
In a study published this week, the Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics partnered with regional news magazine High Country News to tally the toll of hospital closures in rural areas and lack of access. The findings are worrisome for this region, but perhaps even more for the rest of the country: Some 15% of Americans 65 or older live in a county with no hospital beds at all.
“Granted, the virus is able to come more slowly to isolated communities, so they do have time on their side,” said Headwaters economist Megan Lawson, who developed the study. “But when it does arrive, the larger hospitals are able to plan.”
Lawson said rural communities without hospital capacity might have time to ramp up mobile testing and to think about pop-up medical care options.
In Montana and other parts of the rural Rocky Mountain West, that concern includes Native American communities. This state has eight federally recognized tribes and seven reservations, dependent on a federal Indian Health Service system that has lagged for years.
“Right now folks are talking about resources in the communities that are already hit, but we wanted to draw attention to places where it hasn’t yet arrived,” said Lawson.