When Gov. Steve Bullock announced the stay-at-home order in March due to COVID-19, Dana Lerum of Lerum Auto in Boulder was worried.
Business dropped off dramatically during those two months under the order, said Lerum.
“People were really scared because they didn’t know anything,” he said.
But after the restrictions started to lift, Lerum said it got busy as folks attended to repairs that went undone during the shutdown.
Since then, business is back to normal, said Lerum.
Lerum, as well as Hair Depot owner Cheryl Martinson, among others, were featured in an April 8 Monitor story that asked businesses about their concerns immediately following the shutdown orders.
At the time uncertainty reigned. Six months later, as many restrictions have been lifted but the pandemic continues — with caseloads having significantly worsened now in Montana than in the spring — the Monitor revisited some of those businesses and organizations to see how they’ve adapted.
Martinson said her business has not returned to pre-COVID levels, with much of that due to her not being able to cut hair at several residential facilities or in homes — something she did regularly before the pandemic. She wants to wait until the state enters Phase 3 — which essentially means being back to normal. Currently, Montana is in Phase 2 with mandatory mask orders for those age five and over and in counties with more than four active COVID-19 cases.
For that reason, Martinson is able to pay the bills through her salon customers, but she’s not paying herself this year.
Neither Lerum or Martinson applied for the many federal and state COVID-19 assistance programs that cropped up in response to the pandemic.
The Star Theatre in Whitehall has been closed since March — and owner Colton Anderson believes that will continue into next year.
The theater relies on new releases from the movie studios — and there hasn’t been but one since the pandemic hit, said Anderson.
“Tenet” was released in September, but Anderson decided not to show it because it sat alone in an otherwise desert of new releases — the type of movies his theater depends upon.
Anderson said he could run old movies, but they don’t draw the crowds that would pay the bills. There are other reasons too, such as the Star Theatre being in a 100-year old building without modern ventilation, as well as people lee ry of eating what is offered at the concession stand due to the pandemic.
“For me it just didn’t make sense to put other people’s health on the line when I don’t have the product to show them,” he said.
As a result, Anderson has applied for federal and state pandemic aid, a move that has allowed him to pay the bills as well as his two employees.
During the downtime, Anderson said he started a nonprofit with a group of people called Gold Junction Presents, and has spent his time creating a park, Main Street Green, in the lot next to the theater. The plan is to turn it into a cultural hub, such as offering Shakespeare in the Park and film festivals when the theater can open up again.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” he said, adding that he’s optimistic that he will be able to begin showing new release movies again next year.
Back in April, Mine Motel owner Pat Lewis was concerned that if the visitors didn’t return by the end of the summer that she might have to sell the motel.
That hasn’t happened and the Mine Motel remains in business. Lewis received two $2,937 COVID-19 business stabilization grants from the state, and hasn’t paid herself since the pandemic arrived. She’s had some business from those working at the Whitetail Road construction projects, folks visiting family and the Amish coming to the health mines — but the tourism business has been “almost nothing,” she said.
“I’m breaking even and hoping to pay my property taxes,” she said.
“Hopefully next year is better,” said Lewis.
When the shutdown order was initially enacted and many businesses closed, the Boulder Community Library opened its doors to allow laid off employees the opportunity to apply for unemployment and look for work on its computers.
Library Director Jodi Smiley said the library still has some folks coming in, but not nearly as much as when the pandemic first hit Montana.
“On average we are helping eight patrons with unemployment a week. Most of them have been on unemployment since the pandemic hit and are just coming in doing job searches and weekly reporting,” said Smiley.
The number of Jefferson County residents filing first time unemployment claims spiked in May and has since dropped off significantly, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. However, those who have continued with unemployment benefits remain above 2019 levels, according to the DLI
Currently, the unemployment rate in Jefferson County is 4.6%, below the state rate of 5.6%. Of a total labor force of 5,608, 257 are unemployed, according to the DLI.
COVID relief aid
Jefferson County has received $3.3 million in state COVID-19 relief grants, according to the Montana Department of Commerce. A listing of recipients is provided on the agency’s website.
In July, the Monitor reported that more than 170 Jefferson County businesses received federal aid through the Paycheck Protection Plan offered through the Small Business Administration.
Of those, 15 received aid of $150,000 or more, but the grant amounts were not released publicly. A second subset of businesses received aid of less than $150,000, for a total of $4.3 million. The PPP funding was designed to help businesses retain jobs during the initial phases of the pandemic.
Many businesses that received the aid said it helped them retain employees.
Jefferson Local Development Corporation Project Coordinator Tom Harrington said his agency has been on hand to help businesses apply for the various types of aid available.
As the pandemic has worn on, Harrington said folks have figured out how to cope with the crisis and the various rules and regulations that have come along with it, such as social distancing and masks.
However, despite the lifting of restrictions and available financial aid, a few businesses in the Whitehall area have been lost, he said, adding that those have mainly been food-related businesses.
Harrington predicts that the longer this goes on, personal issues will become more acute.
Routines are being disrupted, and some establishments, particularly assisted living facilities, are dealing with a lot of rules and regulations, he said.
Tourism-related businesses have also born the brunt of the pandemic as events continue to be canceled, he said.
“It has that ripple effect,” said Harrington, adding that the COVID-19 related grants and aid have helped level things out.
But some believe that with all this federal and state aid, there will be a payback, said Harrington.
Many conservative-minded businesses have opted against receiving the grants because they believe it’s not conducive to a balanced budget, he said.