LIVINGSTON, MONTANA—Spring has finally arrived in late April, and after a nearly monthlong shelter-in-place order, Governor Steve Bullock announced last Wednesday that Montana has “seen the number of positive [coronavirus] cases decline over these past weeks.” Along with a handful of other states, including Colorado, Minnesota, Georgia, and Tennessee, Montana has now begun a “phased reopening,” which commenced on Sunday, April 26, with churches. As of this Monday, retail businesses can open if they operate at “reduced capacity” to ensure “physical distancing”—a mandate that is not as difficult to achieve here as it is in other places, in this state with an abundance of land and only a million people. And so we are steadying ourselves to reemerge. Yet testing for the virus remains confusing and decentralized, and the overall plan is unclear.
My husband and I drove back to our small town on the Yellowstone River in the middle of March. We had been in Las Vegas, where I was on a fellowship and doing some reporting for a book, when his two kids were sent home from college. My stepdaughter was given four days to leave campus and ship her belongings home from Boston; my stepson was told not to return after spring break: his clothes, books, and iPad are still in his dorm room in Philadelphia. The first weeks here were like quarantine anywhere, full of stocking up, cooking, dishwashing, and nonstop Internet doom-scrolling. We spent our early mornings watching birds squabble on the rooftop of the closed restaurant-bar across the street, and our late afternoons hiking in the mountains behind an empty fishing access, or walking on a dirt road where the only person we saw was a rancher moving cattle.
By early April, our town had settled into a strange limbo. Montana has had 451 coronavirus cases and sixteen deaths. Park County, where I live, has had only seven documented cases, all of them recovered. In contrast, the neighboring county, Gallatin, has had 146 cases, the most in state. Gallatin is home to Montana State University in Bozeman, an international airport, and the posh Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, where Justin Timberlake and Google’s Eric Schmidt own houses. The county’s residents are generally well-off and mobile, and many out-of-towners converged there, bringing the virus with them, as the pandemic took off.
Our Democratic governor shut down schools on March 15, the same day as New York City, and people have been surprisingly, almost enthusiastically, compliant with the shelter-in-place order. A group of local women sewed nearly a thousand masks for hospital workers. Homemade banners that say “Heroes Work Here” hang at the grocery store and not far from the hospital’s emergency room entrance. “Some would argue, but we are not deemed essential, so we have decided to close,” read a handwritten sign on a local thrift store. Did we flatten the curve or did the curve never arrive here? It’s hard to say.
While our case count remains low, what has become frighteningly urgent are the economic consequences of lockdown. People all over the country are hurting—in most places, the $1,200 stimulus check barely covers rent—but the effects will be especially pernicious here. Even before this crisis, roughly 15 percent of the state’s population lived below the poverty line (the national average is 12 percent). There are no Fortune 500 companies in Montana—our economy is not buoyed by big-name employers. Livingston, a gateway town to Yellowstone National Park, is populated by artists and writers and ranchers and fishing guides—most of the people I know are self-employed. The coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries, gift shops, and home goods stores that make up our quaint downtown have been shuttered for weeks. These small businesses depend on tourism from travelers who come to fly fish, attend the rodeo, or visit Yellowstone, especially in the summer months. But the park remains closed until further notice, and management has already said that it will only hire half its seasonal staff of about four thousand employees.
Other local employers are limping, too. PrintingForLess, a commercial printing company, just laid off sixty-seven people, half of them in Livingston. Every day, local newspapers announce the struggles of area hospitals, which shut down nonessential care and geared up for a surge that never happened: “In preparing for the coronavirus, Montana hospital revenue plunges,” read a paradoxical recent Bozeman Chronicle headline. Our own small rural hospital’s revenue has dropped by half, and employees are being asked to take voluntary unpaid time off. Losing our hospital would be dire. For many people, though, things already are: 81,000 Montanans have filed for unemployment—nearly a tenth of the state’s population.
As grim as all this is, people are emerging from their cocoons. Our county has not had any new cases since April 6. The trail heads are busy with hikers, no one too close—people appear to be hanging in their quarantine clusters—and the slow drip of commerce is returning. At the drive-in burger stand, which opened for the season this weekend, dozens waited in line: maybe three feet apart, definitely not six, but also visibly self-conscious about getting too near one another. Midday on Sunday, the drive-thru line at Dairy Queen was twelve cars deep. “In difficult times, ice cream makes everything better,” read the electronic marquee. Bars, restaurants, and casinos are cleared to reopen at the beginning of next week. Schools can choose to follow suit a few days later, but a teacher friend tells me she doesn’t think they will.
On a walk around town, I pass a tattoo parlor and see, through the window, a masked woman having her foot tattooed by the artist who owns the shop; her face is also covered. I hope the numbers hold.
Amanda Fortini has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and The Believer, among other publications, and is a recipient of the Rabkin Prize for arts journalism. She lives in Livingston, Montana and Las Vegas, Nevada, where she is the Beverly Rogers Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute. (April 2020)