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COVID-19: Looking back at the past year

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A community adapts to life during a pandemic

By Mira Brody and Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – We all vividly remember the day Big Sky Resort closed. It was March 15, 2020. After a last lap down Liberty Bowl, you might have seen the “LIFT CLOSED” gates sealing off the bottom of Powder Seeker as chairs came to a final halt. A few skiers lingered, stalling the inevitable, until the only option was to turn their skis downhill, drifting home and back to a quickly changing world.

In the weeks to come, we’d face a stay-at-home order, Gallatin County’s first COVID-19-related death, business and school closings, and a statewide mask mandate. Amid the chaos, however, resilience persisted and the Big Sky community showed just how strong it is in the face of adversity.

EBS speaks with frontline workers at Big Sky Medical Center. OUTLAW PARTNERS VIDEO

On March 20, 2020, a mere five days after initial shutdowns left the community reeling, the Big Sky Resort Area District, Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Moonlight Community Foundation and Spanish Peaks Community Foundation announced a joint effort to revive Big Sky Relief, a local aid group that first launched in 2009 in response to the Great Recession. The 2020 objective: provide funding to assist the community in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resort tax district initially pledged $1 million to the Big Sky Relief Fund to help the Bozeman Health  Big Sky Medical Center manage the pandemic and the three foundations quickly matched that amount. To date, Big Sky Relief has invested more than $2 million in the Big Sky community through three pillars: response, recovery and resiliency. 

As part of the initial response, Big Sky Relief invested $500,000 in BSMC to construct four new rooms and purchase five ventilators, then provided $465,000 in grants to local businesses. Finally, as part of an effort to ensure the community’s resilience, Big Sky Relief directed its resources toward increasing behavioral health services and developing long-term programs to support lasting impacts of the pandemic. 

“There’s a very committed group of individuals and organizations in the community that allows us to stay nimble and adapt when something like this occurs,” said Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of the resort tax district. “I hope that we continue to embody the spirit of Big Sky Relief through collaborations with our funding partners, the foundations.”

The past year hasn’t been an easy one, and numerous community members put in hard work to keep Big Sky safe. The stay-at-home order implemented by Gov. Steve Bullock on March 26, 2020 raised concerns about the future.

“We were confronted with shutting down our operations which was clearly the right thing to do,” said Sam Byrne, managing partner of CrossHarbor Capital Partners, the asset management firm in charge of the Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club. “But we had real concerns over the well-being of our employees both from a health perspective and from a financial and community perspective.” 

Once the initial shock of the closures wore off, Bierschwale and BSRAD had their work cut out to predict the future impacts of the pandemic on tax collections. In May of 2020, the resort tax district put together a COVID-19 scenario planning summary consisting of dozens of interviews and hours of research that would help the district make fiscally responsible decisions amid the new pandemic reality.

The efforts of BSRAD and Big Sky Relief have helped carry the community through the last year, and the work isn’t over yet, says Ciara Wolf, committee chair of Big Sky Relief and V.P. of philanthropy for the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation.

“We’re not out of this pandemic,” Wolfe said. “We still have work to do. One of the areas that is going to have long standing impacts because of the pandemic is behavioral health.”

Byrne echoed Wolfe: Big Sky Relief is here to stay.

“We’re by no means done with our commitment to continuing to invest in the community and into the health of the community,” he said. “We have lots of plans for the long haul to continue to support community health during the pandemic and then for many years thereafter.”

In addition to grants and behavioral health services funded through Big Sky Relief, the organization also started a surveillance testing program in Big Sky.

Starting on Dec. 7 of last year, 450 tests were available each week for asymptomatic individuals living in Big Sky. The funds for the $4.5 million testing program were gathered through public, private and philanthropic sources, according to Bierschwale. Large employers accounted for 50 percent of the funds, philanthropic contributions made up 25 percent, and resort tax funding made up the final 25 percent when the board committed $750,000 to the program, he said.

As of EBS press time on March 10, the surveillance testing program had administered more than 42,000 cumulative tests and identified approximately 800 positive asymptomatic cases.

The testing program has seen strong community participation so far, said Bierschwale, adding that he hopes interest will persist through April 9 when the mobile lab leaves Big Sky.

“We need people to continue to participate to see this through to the finish line,” he said. “We’ve seen the community make great strides in decreasing the prevalence of COVID-19 our community. We still have approximately five weeks of the winter season ahead of us and we need to stay diligent in ensuring that we’re all participating and doing our part in bringing that winter season to a close without having an impact on the safety and health of our community.”

Bierschwale pointed to the Big Sky School District as an indicator of surveillance testing success since Feb. 15, when the district was able to return to 100 percent in-person learning. In addition, he said the fact that Big Sky Resort has remained open this season ensures that tax collections for the community at large are on par with last year.

The program also allowed approximately 20 different Big Sky businesses to identify exposures, test employees, and get back up and running quickly, Bierschwale said.

At the helm of pandemic efforts in Gallatin County is Gallatin City-County Health Department’s Health Officer Matt Kelley. In an eerie coincidence, one year from the week that COVID-19 shut down our community, three cases of the U.K. variant were confirmed in Gallatin County, the first reported in the state, bringing with it similar unknowns. 

However, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the light at the far end of the tunnel seemed to shine a little brighter.

“The road, it’s been challenging and science is about learning,” Kelley told EBS during a March 5 press conference. “It’s about being flexible and being open to new ideas, adjusting to the new reality, and we’ve been doing that in a political environment that sometimes wasn’t always super friendly to that free exchange of ideas. None of us have been through a pandemic before. None of us had seen this virus. As hard as it’s been, I just can’t be more proud of the team that we’ve been working with.”

Kelley praised a variety of local emergency personnel teams, including the Department of Emergency Services, Bozeman Fire Department, Hebgen Fire District, Big Sky Fire Department, the city of Bozeman, and the city of Belgrade, among others, for their collaboration and leadership during the pandemic.

“It was the learning opportunity of a lifetime and we are going to be taking many COVID legacies into the future with us,” said Bozeman Health COVID-19 Incident Command Lead Kallie Kujawa, who joined Kelley at the press conference. “How to build relationships and change things at the pace that we did was phenomenal.” 

Kelley reminded the community that COVID-19 cases are still plateauing from last summer’s peak and that numbers aren’t yet low enough for the community to lower its guard. As of March 8, Gallatin County is vaccinating those in phases 1B+, 1B and 1A, which covers frontline workers, residents and staff in long-term care facilities, first responders, those over 60 year of age, American Indians and people of color, and those with high-risk medical conditions.

“We have some things to look forward to and some reasons for hope,” said Kelley, pointing to the three vaccines being distributed at an expanding clip. “But we also have some vulnerabilities. These variant strains of the virus are concerning, and so it’s really important that as we work to get these vaccines distributed everybody continues to do their part to slow down transmissions. We’re not done with this yet.”

Today, the lifts at Big Sky Resort are still spinning, whisking skiers up to the mountain peak that watches over the community below. In order to make this possible, resort officials this season implemented various new health and safety measures including requiring face coverings in public areas, following social distancing protocols, and not loading chairlifts at full capacity.

“I’m incredibly proud of our teams that have pivoted countless times to make this season a success,” said Troy Nedved, the resort’s general manager, praising the collaborative effort from the Big Sky community. “We hope that soon the resort will be fully operational, firing on all cylinders and welcoming all guests to safely enjoy the best that Big Sky has to offer.”

The five-month surveillance testing program in Big Sky has administered over 42,000 tests and identified 800 positive cases since it began in December 2020. GRAPHIC COURTESY OF BIG SKY RELIEF.

As of EBS press time, more than 1,000 people in the Big Sky community have been vaccinated, according to Taylor Rose, director of clinical services and operations at BSMC. And with more doses en route, BSMC is planning to implement more vaccine clinics over the next couple of weeks, Rose said.

The arrival of the vaccines has provided a sense of hope to many and sparks the question: What next?

“I’m an eternal optimist, but I think the future is bright,” Wolfe said. “I think sometimes you go through really hard things like this and you create models and systems that work that then can help for years down the road. I really see us being able to do a lot of great work together and we have learned a lot as a community.” 

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