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'Not A Big Deal'

A man stands in front of an off road vehicle covered in "Steve Gunderson MT House Dist. 1" signs and an American flag.
Kylie Mohr
Montana Free Press
House District 1 state Rep. Steve Gunderson stands in front of his ATV-turned-“campaign float” Friday evening in Libby. Gunderson is running for re-election and says the state's coronavirus response should prioritize faith over fear.

Trump supporters in Libby react to news of the president's COVID-19 diagnosis.

This story is republished with permission from Montana Free Press.

LIBBY — Donald Trump fans in the northwestern corner of Montana were unfazed on Oct. 2 by the news that the president and first lady have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Morgan Mallory said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Mallory and his wife stood outside the Pastime Bar & Lounge while about 40 cars paraded up and down Libby’s Mineral Avenue brandishing Trump signs and American flags. The Cabinet Mountains loomed in the background. People, including one man dressed as Uncle Sam, poked their heads through sunroofs to wave at neighbors and the few spectators lining the street. Kids flocked to the town’s main thoroughfare to partake in the action, some holding up phones to take pictures. Others participants rode bikes and offroad vehicles draped with American iconography. Trucks blared patriot themed music like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA.”

Local Republican House Rep. Steve Gunderson, who drove a decked out ATV bearing signs for his own re election campaign and Trump’s, called the semi regular parade the “Trump train.” He traced the tradition of cruising the town’s main street, locally called “dragging the gut,” to his high school days. Now the gatherings have turned into mini Trump rallies. Similar parades have sprouted up across the state, including in Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Kalispell on Trump’s June 14 birthday.

With the presidential election just over a month away and COVID-19 cases rising again in Montana, Republican voters along the Kootenai River appear nonchalant about the latest development in Washington, D.C., and don’t see it altering their views on the virus or their day to day lives. In 2016, 72.5 percent of Lincoln County, which encompasses Troy, Libby, Eureka and the Bull River Valley up to the Canadian border, voted for Trump.

Just hours before the show of support, Trump was hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Supporters cruising the streets of Libby said they aren’t worried about his health.

“Watching the debate, I think he’s a fighter,” Gunderson said. “I think Melania is a fighter.”

Local business owner Chris D., who declined to provide his full last name, said he questioned the news entirely.

“I don’t know if I believe it or not,” he said.

Friday night brought the news that Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, had tested positive for the virus after attending a White House ceremony announcing Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. National Republican Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, recently departed presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway and Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien also announced positive test results on Oct. 2. On Oct. 3, positive COVID test results were announced for 11 campaign staffers who attended the Sept. 29 presidential debate in Cleveland.

Almost half of Montana’s total number of COVID-19 cases were reported in September. After a daily record of 429 new cases was recorded Thursday, 360 more cases and five new deaths were on Oct 2. On Oct. 3, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services reported another daily record of 501 news cases.

Libby’s Chris D., wearing an American flag neck gaiter astride a 4 wheeler, and another man who stopped by briefly to chat, said they don’t trust those numbers. They think they’re inflated. Chris D. also speculated that Trump might not actually have the coronavirus. Maybe it was a political stunt, he said. Maybe someone gave it to him on purpose. Maybe it was a false positive.

“Who knows?” he said. “What I do know is I don’t like people on social media wishing he was dead. No matter what you believe, you don’t wish that on someone.”

Asked if they were likely to modify their behavior or adherence to public health guidelines about wearing masks and social distancing in response to the developments, both men answered with a resounding “Nope.”

“Que sera sera,” Gunderson said. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”

Gunderson has already been exposed to the coronavirus once. He attended the Montana Board of Regents meeting in Dillon in March where multiple attendees later tested positive. Gunderson, his wife and his elderly mother quarantined for two weeks as a result.

“After that I said, ‘You know, this is crazy,’” Gunderson said.

Other Trump supporters at the Libby parade were reluctant to be quoted by name, but said Trump’s diagnosis isn’t a big deal, and isn’t likely to influence their personal attitudes or actions. They said they believe masks should be optional for vulnerable populations, like the roughly 1 in 10 Libby residents with asbestos related lung disease, but not widely mandated. They said the virus feels distant from their daily lives, and that to the extent it has hit closer to home, the impacts haven’t been severe, supporting their idea that news about the virus is overblown.

Outside the Pastime Bar & Lounge, Morgan Mallory’s wife, who declined to give her name, said the coronavirus should be called “the less than one percent virus” for that reason.

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 2.9 percent of U.S. cases are fatal.

“My daughter tested positive and nothing happened,” she said. “We haven’t really had any effect here.”

Montana’s first recorded death attributed to COVID-19, in late March, was 77 year old Libby resident Jim Tomlin. As of Oct. 3, Lincoln County has recorded a total of 138 cases, including 29 active cases and three deaths.

Kylie Mohr