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Montanans Eye Reopening With Readiness, Caution, Hope

Dale Sexton on a bike ride with his two daughters in Livingston, Montana.
Courtesy of Kristen Galbraith
Dale Sexton on a bike ride with his two daughters in Livingston, Montana.

As Montana wraps up its first week of the phased reopening plan, families across the state are feeling a whole spectrum of emotions as main street businesses unlock their doors and people leave their homes.

For more than a month, Josie Reynolds has been working from home on her family’s ranch near Townsend while also helping her kids with online learning.

“It’s super challenging," she says.

Part of the challenge is that they don’t have internet set up at home.

“So all I have to work with daily is my little hot spot on my phone and I have three kids that access it, plus I use it for work," she says. "And thankfully the school had a computer and an iPad that we could borrow because I didn’t even have computers for them. So it’s been a huge learning curve.”

But Reynolds says she’s actually relieved the school district decided this week to continue with online learning for the rest of the year. She says it would be harder for everyone to make the adjustment of going back right before summer break, and she says her kids actually love learning from home.

Reynolds says she does feel bad for her younger brother, who’s a senior in high school, and she isn’t sure what’s going to happen with the graduation ceremony.

“We’re into rodeo so my family’s planned a big team roping graduation party for him. We tentatively have it scheduled for the middle of May, but we have a back-up date for July so it may just get pushed back,” Reynolds says.

Reynolds says she’s ready for businesses to open back up and for life to feel more normal.

But on the Fort Belknap Reservation, Camille Stein supports a more cautious approach.

The reservation is waiting to reopen for at least two more weeks in an effort to protect elders and vulnerable populations.

That means the casino and any other non-essential business remain closed. A curfew from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. is still in effect. People who travel to communities with active COVID-19 cases are asked to report to Tribal Health, go into a two week quarantine and pass a health screening.

“Right now, we’re hunkered down and people are really supportive of that," Stein says. "I guess it’s really seeing what happens on the state and national level.”

Stein says one of the bright spots over the last six weeks has been being able to spend more time with her kids who are usually busy with sports year-round.

"Well my kids do track. They play basketball. They do tournaments in the spring and they swim in the summer. So that’s actually something we’re looking at, too. We’re kind of nervous about. Would even want to send our kids?" she says.

In Livingston, Dale Sexton has an optimistic outlook for the post-COVID-19 world. He owns Timber Trails, a small outdoor specialty store. Last week he and a business partner purchased Dan Bailey's Fly Shop. He says the historic shop has been a foundational part of the community and the international fly fishing scene for decades.

When asked if it was scary to buy a business during a pandemic, he laughs and says, "Yeah, it was actually. I mean, who does that in this kind of environment, right? But as a friend of mine described, sometimes when everyone’s running away from something, that’s the time to run towards it.”

He says the purchase has been three years in the making and in some ways market pressure from the pandemic sped up the process. The plan is to reopen the fly shop this summer after some renovations.

Sexton says he hopes some aspects of life right now won’t change as the pandemic subsides. He’s valued the extra time he’s been able to spend with his two daughters.

"I’ve been trying to increase their cooking experience. We've been doing a lot of baking together, a lot of bike rides. They're almost beating me at horse in basketball," he says.

Sexton says he’s been talking to his staff about maintaining a later opening time at Timber Trails so that they can continue spending more time with their families in the morning.

“I’m looking forward to coming out of this in some kind of metamorphosis that makes us all better. I’m not sure what that is exactly,” he says.

That’s not the case for quilt shop owner Shirley Wilson near Canyon Ferry.

“With limited openings and those types of things we can let off some of this steam and get back to sorta normal," Wilson says.

For Wilson, that means people can meet up with friends and family, go shopping and eat in restaurants without concern.

She says she recently went to COSTCO in Helena and noticed millennials were wearing masks whereas she and other people with gray hair weren’t.

“This is not the first crisis that has come through America in our life," she says. "This is the first one we have shut down everything for. That bothers me in some ways. But that’s what the current rule is.”

Wilson says the grass will get green, dandelions will come up and rose bushes will bloom. She’s looking for the light amid the dark place we’ve been in the last few weeks.