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Toole County reels with most coronavirus deaths in Montana

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Dempsey and Firpo, 1924 painting by George Bellows

Editor’s Note: Another Montanan has died in Toole County as a result of COVID-19 since the writing of this article.

By Jeff Welsch THE BILLINGS GAZETTE

SHELBY, Mont. (AP) – Whether in an email or a post for the city of Shelby’s Facebook page, Lorette Carter always tries to close with the same message of hope and fortitude.

“We will get through this together,” she says, and in her reassuring words the roughly 3,100 souls in this Hi-Line crossroads outpost can feel their community development director’s cheerful demeanor wash over them.

“This” is the twin anvils of emotional tears and economic fears testing Shelby’s resilience amid the COVID-19 pandemic, The Billings Gazette reported.

Per capita, no Montana community has been hit harder by the virus. As of Monday, Toole County (pop. 4,800) had 29 confirmed cases, five of the state’s 11 deaths and 14 recovered – all but the most recent infection directly linked to Shelby’s 38-apartment Marias Heritage Center assisted-living facility and by extension the 21-bed Marias Medical Center.

Beyond the tragedies is economic upheaval most conspicuous in Shelby’s surreally sedate Main Street. Shelter-in-place and social distancing have shuttered cafes, taverns and retail businesses typically abuzz with social connectivity.

“When you drive down Main Street and don’t see a car, it’s frightening,” said Dwaine Iverson, a certified public accountant. “Impacts are everywhere. And if we don’t do something to keep (businesses) alive, when we get all done with this … Main Street now, with the shutdown, is going to look like that all the time.”

It’s a grim forecast to be sure, but don’t mistake it for civic futility. Shelby knows how to absorb a punch and rise from the canvas.

Such resolve dates to the economic carnage from a Fourth of July boxing match between world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons in 1923, barely 13 years after the city’s incorporation. To land a bout conceived by two starry-eyed real-estate moguls riding the wave of a new oil boom, Shelby pledged $300,000 – about $4.5 million in today’s money – and erected a massive 40,268-seat wooden octagon in a west-end pasture.

When Shelby struggled to scare up the final $100,000, Dempsey’s shrewd manager, Doc Kearns, briefly canceled three days before the fight. Only 8,000 tickets were sold, and when Dempsey’s 15-round decision was over, the fighters departed with the riches and left a trail of hardship that wiped out four banks and bankrupted many citizens. Notable reminders today are a Champions Park exhibit and City Hall, hastily built for media headquarters and now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Neither the fight nor the oil boom unfolded as fantasized, but Shelby nevertheless rose to its feet, if woozily, to fight again.

“That’s our backbone,” Carter said, citing Dempsey-Gibbons as a real-life metaphor for today’s crisis. “We are all fighters up here. We have no need to crumple. That’s our fighting spirit.”

Admittedly, the loss of neighbors everyone knew bears an irreconcilable weight that’s compounded by the precarious economic outlook.

An unwitting visitor apparently brought COVID-19 to the Heritage Center about the third week of March. The first fatality was Beverly Jean Rogers, 79, on March 28. Two other Heritage Center residents died soon after and a fourth county death was announced Thursday; the families have withheld the names for privacy. The first three had underlying health conditions, Iverson said.

Because of the virus, the bodies were cremated. Funeral services can’t be held until large gatherings are deemed safe.

This photo taken April 14, 2020, shows Army National Guard soldiers waiting to check Amtrak passengers as Shelby, Mont., struggles with three of the (then) seven coronavirus deaths in Montana. From left, Sgt. Willie Nesmith, Spec. Trevor Dodson and Spec. Robert Swensen meet the eastbound Empire Builder. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

“This is uncharted territory for everybody,” Blair Tomscheck, the county’s interim health department director, said Thursday in a Facebook Live conference with Unified Incident Command leader Bob Sandman of Kalispell and Shane Clark, incident commander for Toole County and also the medical center’s chief financial officer. “I don’t know of anybody alive that has gone through what we’re going through with this virus.”

Isolation has not spared Shelby.

Iverson recalls his wife, Barbara, who works at the Heritage Center, and three daughters, all nurses in other Montana communities, initially warning him he “wasn’t taking it seriously enough” when COVID-19 first gripped Seattle and surged toward Montana. Soon after, Barbara was in quarantine at home, even though she was off-duty when the virus hit.

Then the first three residents died.

Iverson, noting Shelby’s unfathomable status as a virus “hot spot,” takes it seriously now.

“It feels real because you know the people who died,” he said. “They’re prominent people around here. They come from large families. They were personal friends of mine, clients of mine. That brings it home.”

Said Michael Bashor, a devoted photographer of Shelby Coyotes sports events and lifetime resident of the region: “We all pretty much know who they are.”

Normally when tragedy strikes a small community, it grieves as one. In Shelby, townspeople, ranchers and farmers would share memories in gatherings at homes or over coffee at The Griddle.

Not with COVID-19.

“The biggest issue is families can’t even get together to grieve,” Iverson continued. “That type of thing makes it so tough because the whole grieving process is so critical to go through and could affect the rest of your life. When you can’t give somebody a hug, how important is that?”

Loss of such intimacy isn’t the only emotional impact.

“With each new case, I’ve seen more caution on the part of people,” said Shelby mayor Gary McDermott, like Iverson a CPA. “In my own business, an employee called me and he heard through the grapevine that another employee’s relative tested positive. And of course, panic goes through. You have that fear factor.”

To combat the virus, hospitals in Shelby, Cut Bank, Conrad, Browning and Kalispell formed the 24/7 Unified Incident Command. The Montana National Guard is supporting the assisted-living and medical centers, and Shelby has been approved for a COVID-19 ambulance.

With two ventilators at the hospital, helicopters in Helena are on call to fly victims elsewhere if needed. Medical staffs in one community are braced to backfill in another. The hospital is deep-cleaned by an outside service with proper equipment.

Further support came Thursday with Sen. Jon Tester’s announcement of a $663,477 grant for Marias Healthcare Services.

“I wish people could see what I’ve seen from my seat,” Clark said. “It’s Montanans helping Montanans.”

Toole County citizens know the virus eventually will pass. Economics don’t engender such confidence.

Located in the wheat-and-barley heart of The Golden Triangle, where U.S. Highway 2 and Interstate 15 meet at the “Crossroads of the West,” Shelby does have an economic anchor in the 664-inmate men’s Crossroads Correctional Facility, the state’s only private prison. Crossroads has roughly 150 employees, a payroll of over $10 million and annually contributes some $450,000 in local property taxes, Carter said.

But Shelby also is regrouping from the closure of Shopko last year. The town’s only big-box store other than the Albertsons grocery drew shoppers from Browning, Cut Bank, Conrad, Sunburst and Valier.

And now this.

“Essential” businesses open to foot traffic are Albertsons, two hardware stores, First Security Pawn for firearms/ammunition, two convenience stores with fuel, and the Town Pump out by I-15 on the west end. Albertsons has special morning hours for seniors and other vulnerable citizens, circles six feet apart on the floor, and plexiglass separating customers from check-out clerks.

Restaurants offer takeout and florists leave arrangements on the stoop for pickup. Church services are conducted online.

“Most of the businesses on Main Street, they’re not accessible to the public,” McDermott said. “We just aren’t used to that.”

Said Carter: “They’re all getting creative.”

Amtrak’s Empire Builder still stops once each way daily. The few passengers are screened by the National Guard for fever; some register at one of the town’s eight motels but others, leery of previous guests, are too fearful.

Shelby has mostly given up on critical summer dollars from tourists bound for Glacier National Park roughly 80 miles to the west, even if it reopens, because vacations have been canceled.

Already riding a thin margin, a town named for 1891 Montana Central Railroad manager Peter O. Shelby teeters anxiously.

One example: The Montana Department of Transportation began three “mill and fill” road-surface projects Monday, giving motels and restaurants a needed infusion. Imagine the anxiety when MDT initially expressed concern to Carter that “Toole County was closed down.”

“I assured them, no, we’re not,” she said. “We need to keep business moving forward.”

Schools, however, are closed, halting spring sports at least until April 24 in a community with a rich athletic tradition. The Coyotes girls golf team finished second in Class B last year and had designs on a title next month.

“Not having sports this spring is something that’s really tough,” Iverson said. “That’s what keeps a lot of people going.”

But this is Shelby. Absorb the punches, get off the canvas.

During a recent life-goes-on City Council meeting, where a state of emergency was declared so the city could receive federal funding, a small fraction of the agenda was virus-related. On a conference call, plans to designate Shelby’s entire downtown a National Historic District were discussed, among many boilerplate topics.

Shelby already had an energy-relief fund for residents struggling with bills, endowed 14 years ago in memory of a local woman. The city also is waiving late fees.

Iverson, normally up to his neck in tax returns in April, is instead swamped by applications for payroll-protection and economic-disaster loans.

“We’re just trying to help everybody,” said Jade Goroski, Shelby’s chief finance officer.

Forging ahead, Shelby is preparing for when – when? – normalcy returns, whatever that looks like.

They’re mapping it with Toole County Forward.

Iverson said the group has a $75,000-and-growing fund to provide grants for businesses, and they’re hoping the port authority matches it. A goal is for reopening businesses to pay suppliers without having to borrow money; some, Iverson concedes, still likely won’t make it.

Government support is vital, he adds, but Shelby must also be self-reliant.

“We should end up with a healthier business community, but we’ve got to get prepared to get through the next year,” he said. “We’ve all got to look at how we move forward. That’s the key. We can’t look back. The effort we put in is going to determine what the future is. If we sit back and wait (for help) it’s not going to be there. We’ve got to figure it out for ourselves. Uncertainty is causing more problems than anything. We don’t know how we’re going to come out of this.

“We have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.”

Such civic resolve is perhaps epitomized by the words of Adria Lamb, a 17-year-old high school junior who’s a nurse’s assistant at the Heritage Center and the youngest resident to test positive for COVID-19. She spent two weeks in quarantine at home.

“When I was told that a resident had tested positive and I had to be tested, no amount of training, preparing, or precautions could have prepared me for what was gonna happen,” Lamb wrote on her Facebook page April 2. “I didn’t know that I would test positive and spend two weeks alone in my room. I didn’t know that I would lose so many of my grandmas and grandpas to this silent killer. I didn’t know that the last time I said I love you, or a simple hug to one of them, would really be the last time.

“I know that you don’t know or understand it,” she concluded, “because I didn’t either.”

Quit? No way.

“Of course I’m still gonna go back,” Lamb wrote in an email to the Great Falls Tribune. “I’m looking forward to it actually. I’m still going to work there as much as I can in the future and love every minute of it.”

For the moment, Shelby’s future is fraught with uncertainty even as politicians discuss a gradual “re-opening” of Montana.

Sandman said if cases level off his group could “transition out” as soon as this week, though he cautions about escalation and adds: “This is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re going to be in this for some time and we certainly don’t see the end of it yet.”

Added Tomscheck: “We’re all getting tired. Everybody is getting ready to rip off their mask, to celebrate birthdays or go to weddings, to get back to life, but we’re just not there yet. We’re close, but we need to stay vigilant because we don’t want it to get worse.”

In the meantime, Shelby strives for semblances of familiarity amid social distancing.

One evening, the fire department staged an impromptu parade on Main Street. To support the medical community, Shelby-ites young and old unwind with unfettered howling and yipping – they’re Coyotes, after all – at 8 p.m. nightly.

“A moment of levity for our whole community,” Carter said.

The unifying theme: We’ll get through this.

Together.

“That’s the key for all of us,” Carter added. “We’re not alone in this process. We’ll get through and people should not be afraid.”

After all, this isn’t the first time Shelby has been down for the count.

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