On March 11, 2020, the print edition of the Flathead Beacon featured an image of a member of the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club on the cover. Inside, there was a story on then-Gov. Steve Bullock announcing he would run for U.S. Senate. There was another story on Micah Hill, who was just selected as the next Kalispell public schools superintendent. There was no mention of coronavirus or COVID-19 in the news section.
One week later, everything changed.
On the cover of that edition there was a picture of a shopper at a local grocery store with bare shelves. The headline read: “Montana Hunkers Down as Closures Mount.”
Somehow, the beginning of the pandemic in the United States seems both a long and short time ago. In those early days, few knew what to do or what to expect. How much toilet paper should we stock up on? Should we wear a mask? Who is an essential worker? The answers from state and federal officials were murky at best and contradictory at worst.
For me, the coronavirus officially came to Montana on March 15, 2020. That’s when Whitefish Mountain Resort abruptly announced it would stop spinning its chairlifts and close for the season. “It is with a heavy heart that we have reached this decision,” Dan Graves, the resort’s CEO, said. That same day Bullock ordered all K-12 schools in the state to close for two weeks and recommended canceling all gatherings of more than 50 people.
“As governor, it is my top priority to protect the health and safety of Montanans, particularly our most vulnerable, at a time when we face the potential for extraordinary health risks from coronavirus in our state,” Bullock said.
Flathead Valley Community College canceled classes and would only offer remote learning the rest of the semester. Libraries across the valley closed. So did Montana Raceway Park. Fitness centers shut their doors.
The state high school basketball tournaments were already underway, but those too would be abandoned. Teenagers saw their sports careers cut prematurely short so close to the finish line.
“It was tough,” Browning boys basketball coach Dan Connelly said at the time. “Surreal is a good word. I’m still numb over the whole deal. The poor kids work their butts off their whole careers and just like that it gets taken away.”
Surreal is, in fact, a good word. At our office we discussed how many employees could work from home. Has everyone downloaded Zoom? How will this impact our workflow? How will lockdowns affect the local economy?
For months, instead of walking into a bustling office filled with reporters, designers and advertising executives, our workplace was quiet and empty with just a handful of employees allowed in the building at a time. As COVID-19 began sickening locals it also sucked the energy out of small businesses like ours.
Two years. That’s how long it has been since the world shut down and we’re still required to wear masks on airplanes. Health officials warned us the pandemic would last a long time, but I never would have guessed it would be this long. And I would never have guessed how it would change our state.
The population exploded along with real estate prices. Tourism increased and Glacier Park had to turn away visitors. Everyone seemed a little more on edge. In many ways, they still do. Two years later and I wonder if Montana will ever be the same.
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