The Old Normal

The valley is beginning to look more like its old self

By Kellyn Brown

Gyms, fitness studios and movie theaters will join restaurants, bars and salons in reopening this week. There are several caveats. The guidelines released by the governor last week limit capacity and include other restrictions to encourage social distancing. But it’s still welcome news.

The valley is beginning to look more like its old self. Traffic has noticeably increased. Retailers are slowly unlocking their doors. And employees are heading back to their respective offices. To be sure, it’s not the same. Some parks are still closed. Airplanes and hotels are largely empty. And our service industry is bracing for a brutal tourism season.

We’re inching toward normalcy, even if it’s still a long way off. And that’s better than most can say.

Montana has recorded two or fewer new positive COVID-19 cases every day since April 26. The state has the lowest per-capita infection rate of any state in the country. Sure, we’re lucky that we have lots of room to roam here, but other rural areas have fared far worse. Their “new normal” will likely last longer than ours.

Everything has changed, but I disagree with the notion that it will never be the same. It will take time. And we will have to take precautions when the state once again welcomes visitors without requiring them to self-quarantine for 14 days. We will have to be vigilant, but eventually the valley will look a lot like it did before.

The sicknesses and deaths wrought by COVID-19 are tragic. Health care workers who responded to the outbreak deserve our continued adulation and support. The summer of 2020 will be a season of transition and one we’ll always associate with a worldwide pandemic.

It’s also when we will begin to rebuild an economy decimated by the virus. The numbers released by the Labor Department last week are staggering: 14.7% unemployment nationwide (the highest since 1939) and 20.5 million jobs lost. In Montana, the Tax Foundation estimates a jobless rate of 12.6%.

But there are some signs of hope. Economists had forecast even worse numbers, and the report indicated that the vast majority of job losses are considered temporary. When and how employees return to work will be determined largely by where they live. We’re among the first to lift stay-at-home orders and allow businesses to reopen. The difference is Montana, unlike several other states easing restrictions, has flattened the curve of new COVID-19 cases.

None of this is to say the virus is gone, or that infections won’t spike again. But amid this outbreak, there is perhaps no better place to be than here. Our local and statewide public officials largely responded quickly and in unison. Montanans did what they do best: spread out. And soon the number of new cases began dropping.

Sure, things have changed. But as more of us emerge from quarantine and begin reconnecting with one another, it’s also clear that many things haven’t changed. And just like we did during the recession one decade ago, we’ll depend on each other to emerge from this crisis. And life will return to normal, which I far prefer to the new normal.

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