Normal life ground to a halt in Belgrade and the Gallatin Valley this week, even before the county’s third case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Tuesday.
Municipal offices, schools and businesses throughout the valley have been closed in an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. On Sunday, Gov. Steve Bullock ordered that schools across the state close for two weeks. By order of the Gallatin City-County Health Department, restaurants, bars, casinos and similar establishments were ordered closed to the public until March 24, though take-out and delivery services are still allowed.
Belgrade City Hall closed to the public at noon on Tuesday, after the city council approved a plan Monday night to shutter the building for six weeks. And following the lead of the city, the Belgrade Library closed Tuesday afternoon, also for six weeks.
Individual businesses of all sorts are taking steps to reduce human contact — for example, some banks have closed their lobbies, but continue to serve customers through their drive-up windows. Travis Frandsen, president of Town & Country Foods, told the Belgrade News on Wednesday that all T&C stores will shorten their hours to 7 a.m.-7 p.m. in order to allow for to extra cleaning and to enable employees to take care of their own health. The extra time also will help employees catch up with stocking, as customer demand is growing every day, he said.
Gallatin County officials said at a mid-day press conference Wednesday that three people in the county have tested positive for COVID-19. The first patient, announced last week, is a male in his 40s who is believed to have contracted the virus overseas. The two additional patients announced this week, both men in their 20s, also are believed to have contracted the virus out of state.
The officials said it is unlikely that these will be the only cases confirmed in Montana. So far 85 tests have been done in the county, and testing is being reserved for patients who have reason to believe they have the virus.
The Belgrade and Gallatin Gateway school districts already were planning to be closed for Spring Break this week, but administrators stayed busy planning for how to manage during next week’s mandated closure — and beyond, should the shutdown be extended.
The Belgrade School Board will hold a special board meeting at 7 on Friday morning to consider declaring an unforeseen emergency that would make the district eligible for certain state funding. The board also will consider a recommendation to require employees who have traveled out of state to enter 14-day quarantine.
Superintendent Godfrey Saunders said the district plans to keep as many employees as possible working during the closure, but “right now, we don’t have a definitive answer” about whether some jobs will be affected. He said certain groups of classified employees, such as IT staff and custodians, will stay on. Others who regularly work with students will be “repurposed,” if possible, in order to keep them employed, but due to uncertainty about how long the shutdown may last, there are still a lot of unknowns.
Belgrade teachers will be shifting their focus to providing distance learning options for students, following a plan hammered out earlier this week by the district’s leadership team to deliver instruction to students while buildings are closed, and beyond March 26 if the statewide school closure should be extended. A detailed plan will be posted on the district website by Friday, Saunders said.
He said the goal is to offer distance or online instruction, primarily for grades 5 through 12 — however, the circumstances have “brought to light a couple of gaps we have with online education,” he said.
“For example, we wouldn’t have enough online technology for kids who don’t have access at home,” he added. “It’s our job to find alternative sources for them to get the things they need.”
Belgrade isn’t the only district in the valley with students who don’t have Internet access at home or devices to access instruction online. Three Forks Superintendent Jeff Elliott said 20 to 25 percent of students in the district don’t have the ability at home to access online services.
“We’ll be starting next week to see what kind of delivery method we can provide,” Elliott said, adding it is likely the district will establish a way for students to come in and access physical materials if they are unable to access those online.
The Three Forks School Board voted Tuesday night to declare an unforeseen emergency, which gives the district’s leadership team the ability to consider what kind of education materials it can provide.
Elliott said it is likely that the district will provide a “hybrid” of instructional options, including online instruction and physical packets.
In Willow Creek, staff decided the best way to provide instruction to the small student body was through physical packets of materials, said Superintendent and Principal Bonnie Lower. Families pick up the packets at the school and return completed work at the end of the week. Teachers are accessible to students via phone and text. Since Willow Creek is a rural community, Lower said there were concerns about the demand on local bandwidth if the district relied too heavily on online instruction, though some of that is already in place in the district.
“It’s really unfortunate — kids do better when they’re in school,” Lower said of the school closure.
Her sentiments were echoed by other administrators around the valley, who said the uncertainty about whether closures will extend beyond the end of March make it difficult to plan.
“Our staff and teachers are trying to run with it,” said Jeff Blessum, superintendent of Manhattan schools, who said the district will offer a combination of online offerings and physical packets for students who may not have access to technology at home.
“We have a positive attitude, and we’re putting kids first,” he said.
Theresa Keel, superintendent in Gallatin Gateway, said a special board meeting has been scheduled for Friday to consider declaring an unforeseen emergency. Keel said the district is working with the Montana Education Association on personnel issues related to the closure.
She said it was “fortuitous” that this was the regularly scheduled Spring Break in Gallatin Gateway, which has given the district time to prepare to serve students next week.
“Our staff will all continue working,” she said. “Our teachers and staff will be working remotely and at times here at school if they choose.”
The administrators of all the schools said their districts will continue to offer meals to students in need, most of them at pick-up locations. Details for each can be found on their respective websites.
In Belgrade, despite the closure of City Hall, city staff will continue to work as assigned by supervisors, but their assignments will be designed to minimize public contact. All face-to-face meetings involving non-city employees have been canceled, unless approved otherwise by City Manager Ted Barkley.
“We have a steady stream of people through City Hall every day,” Barkley told the council at its meeting on Monday. “The only way to slow this (spread of virus) down is to not have contact with people.”
Following the lead of the city, the decision was made to close the Belgrade Library on Tuesday afternoon, also for six weeks. Library Director Gale Bacon said all staff will continue to work as long they do not need to go into quarantine or tend to other family issues related to the virus.
Bacon said there are more than enough projects to keep everyone busy during the closure. However, as is being done at City Hall, desks will be moved so employees can maintain a working distance of at least 6 feet.
Belgrade-only library materials can continue to be dropped at the library drop box, and patrons are invited to call the library at 388-3436 between 10 a.m.-noon and 4-6 p.m. on weekdays with any library-related questions.
The staff is considering offering a weekly, online story time for families, and looking into the possibility of other online services. Bacon reminded patrons that they also may download books with their library cards at Montana Library To Go.
“We’re trying to keep a link to the public,” Bacon said. “We’re trying to be an integral part of the community (despite the shutdown).”
Barkley said that city employees will be provided with up to 120 hours of paid leave related to the coronavirus, to be used for illness, quarantine, or caring for a child home as a result of school closure, daycare closure, or other virus-related circumstances. Changes to city policies that need to be made between committee meetings can be approved by at least three members of the Belgrade Disaster Emergency Service Committee. Its members are Barkley, Police Chief E.J. Clark, city council members Jim Simon and Mike Meis, and Central Valley Fire Chief Ron Lindroth.
The Belgrade Senior Center has been closed until further notice, said Director Lisa Beedy, but it still is delivering Meals on Wheels.
“We want to focus on people in need,” Beedy said.
She said a number of people have contacted the senior center offering to be of service to older people who would like help acquiring groceries or prescriptions. If you would like help, call the Senior Center at 388-4711 to be connected with someone who can provide assistance.
Contacted Wednesday, Kristi Gee of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce said she is concerned about the effect of forced closures on area businesses.
“I hope this doesn’t mean they have to close their doors,” she said.
Gee said the Small Business Administration and Bridge Economic Development District have money available in the form on long-term, low-interest loans to help business owners who may need the cash during the crisis. Business owners who would like more information are invited to call the Chamber at 388-1616. The office is closed, but chamber employees are still working, Gee said.
Gee said most Belgrade restaurants are offering takeout and/or delivery service, but the forced closure is still “kind of worrisome.”
“We’re trying to get the word out that restaurants are still open,” even though the dining rooms are closed, she said.
Both Frandsen of Town & Country and the manager of Albertsons in Belgrade, Kelly Seevers, said business has picked up during the crisis. They said it has been difficult keeping shelves stocked, but they are trying to get trucks in as quickly as possible to replenish the shelves.
Frandsen said Town & Country is asking for voluntary customer compliance with a request to reserve the hours of 7-8 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays for shoppers at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus — people over 60, or those with underlying health conditions. He said the decision was made Wednesday in an effort to accommodate people in the high-risk category, without causing inconvenience for working people who regular patronize the stores during those hours on weekdays.
Seevers said Albertsons also is considering special considerations for high-risk shoppers, but a decision had not been made as of Wednesday morning.