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For Some In Rural Communities Spared By COVID-19, Sacrifices Stir Resentment

Logan Weaver

This story was powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

If you want a hearty breakfast in the small town of Thompson Falls, Montana, Minnie's Montana Cafe has you covered.


"We're a mom-and-pop establishment," says owner Myles Sexton. "We've got bacon and eggs, hamburgers, chicken-fried steak, and fried chicken."

Normally, there are throngs of locals and tourists scarfing down Minnie's greasy-spoon dishes. But business took a hit when the pandemic reached Montana in mid-March. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, either limited or shut down restaurants, bars and other non-essential businesses to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

"The volume dropped to less than a third of what we were normally doing," Sexton says. 

Meanwhile, Sanders County is one of more than a hundred counties in the Mountain West that have been mostly spared from the virus so far. It has had zero confirmed cases. Sexton is following social distancing guidelines and making sure his restaurant is up to code. But he believes, in hindsight, the state government overreacted in shutting everything down. The county, he says, could've protected itself. 

"Everybody knows everybody in these rural areas out here," he says. "So I think [county officials] were taking those precautions...without the government coming in and telling us, 'This is what you can do and what you can't do.'"

Sexton's opinion is not a popular one. According to a recent poll from Montana State University, a large majority of respondents in Montana, Utah and Colorado support statewide lockdowns to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But there is a small yet vocal minority who feel the virus and our response to it has been overblown – including some in rural communities with few or no cases of COVID-19 so far. A handful of businesses in these communities have even defied state orders and opened up early, including Hardware Brewing Company in north-central Idaho. 

"We defied this order because we know of no law, no legislation that's been passed, no law that's been signed by the governor, that says we can't operate and enjoy commerce, which is our right – our constitutional right," brewery co-owner Christine Lohman told Fox News earlier this month. 

This argument is at the center of protests across the country. Bruce McKay, a former law enforcement officer living near Sandpoint, Idaho, argues the lockdowns are an abuse of power. 

"If I told you four months ago that the government's going to tell you you can't leave your house and we're going to shut your businesses down, you would say, 'Bruce, you need to go see the mental health guy – you're just paranoid,'" he says. "But look what happened."

McKay sees COVID-19 restrictions as a test of how much freedom governments can take away from the people. Others have called the lockdowns unconstitutional. However, they are legal, according to the American Bar Association. In 1902, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Louisiana's power to quarantine an entire geographic area over concerns about yellow fever. Earlier, in 1824, Chief Justice John Marshall explained in a ruling that state police powers included the right to quarantine and impose isolation orders. 

That aside, McKay also says the extended lockdowns are creating other emergencies, such as increased alcoholism and more domestic violence. He worries the cure is worse than the virus itself, which he believes isn't as dangerous as the media and government officials have made it out to be.

"It's not like we've got the bubonic plague here," he says. "This is the hype that I don't buy into."

The fatality rate is still unknown for COVID-19. It has killed more people in the United States than influenza did this year, according to data from the CDC and John Hopkins University. It's also hopscotched across the country, hitting some counties hard while sparing others. Meanwhile, the economy as a whole is like a helicopter without a rotor – spiraling downwards. 

Christine Porter, a public health professor at the University of Wyoming, understands why all this might fuel some resentment over the lockdowns.

"We had to use a bludgeon rather than a scalpel for preventing the epidemic from destroying our economy and our health," she says. 

Porter adds that the statewide lockdowns could have been avoided if the nation had ramped up testing and tracing before the virus exploded.

"Communities that did not have the virus, if we had had testing and tracing available for them, they could've kept going, whereas places that had the virus would've had to do more of the shutting down," she says. "We could've been much more precise and saved a lot of this economic pain."

But because we didn't have comprehensive testing and tracing in place, our next best bet was statewide lockdowns, according to Porter, who says we're in a better spot because of them. She points to the 1918 flu pandemic. A recent white paper from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that towns that shut down early and prevented death fared better financially in the long term than communities that kept their doors open. 

"This isn't a question of economy or health," she says. "It's economy and our health. They are very tightly linked. And anyone who is framing it as 'or' is not following the evidence."

Porter's assessment is supported by a majority of Americans in recent polls. The lockdowns are worth it, even if they have hurt business. 

"Our sales are probably right about half of what they would normally be at this time," says Chase Sanborn, manager of Wallace Brewing Company in rural north-central Idaho. "But boy, wouldn't it just kill you if someone got sick there? Maybe a customer you've had for years? The what-ifs are immense."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio. He earned an M.A. in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism in 2016 and interned at NPR’s Morning Edition in 2014. In a prior life, he toured around the country in a band, lived in Texas for a spell, and once tried unsuccessfully to fly fish. You can reach Nate at
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