One year on: Gallatin Co. reflects on COVID and the impacts on life

Fear, frustration and anger boiled over in March 2021
Posted at 11:03 AM, Mar 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-15 16:52:04-04

BOZEMAN — Saturday, March 13, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary that Montanans have been living with COVID-19 according to health departments across the state.

And it started right here in Gallatin County.

In a three-part series, our Cody Boyer sits down once more with the man who has been at the forefront of the Gallatin County battle against the virus to reflect on what he, as well as all of us, have gone through so far.

It’s hard to believe for many of us, and for others not as much.

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On the evening of March 13, 2020, the first COVID-19 case was announced in Montana.

But this week, we’ve been living with the pandemic for an entire year and we’ve been doing so as well here at the KBZK station.

A lot of the hallways have been this quiet since the beginning and that’s been that way with businesses across the Gallatin Valley, but for those on the frontlines like the health department, COVID-19 has changed the game entirely.

Robert McWilliams, owner of Granny’s Gourmet Donuts: “People are stressed and people are afraid and they should be stressed and they should be afraid.”

Rhonda Gilbert, co-owner of Bubby’s and the Centre Ice Cafe in Belgrade: “This has slowed down many, many businesses.”

Michael Becker, MSU News Service director: “Basically, every corner of campus has seen some sort of adaptation.”

“It’s a complex and rapidly changing situation,” says Matt Kelley, Gallatin City-County Health Officer.

Carlos Powell, an MSU student who, at this time last year, was trying to get home from Italy: “Yesterday was the real first day that it got hectic.”

“Hospitals are extremely stressed,” Kelley said at a press conference in November.

Robert McWilliams: Maybe this is the great reset button so we can just start being nice to each other again.”

“In New York City, they didn’t have enough places to store bodies,” Kelley said in a sit-down interview, via Zoom, with Cody Boyer in March 2021. “They were piling bodies into refrigerator trucks out in the street.”

It’s been a long year, one that doesn’t seem to get shorter.

“That’s a game-changer, in public health,” Kelley says. “That changes everything.”

On the evening of March 13, 2020, the first COVID-19 case was announced in Montana.

Not only was it the 13th but Friday the 13th and it was in Gallatin County, almost 11 years since health officer Matt Kelley started with the Gallatin City-County Health Department.

“Nobody gets into public health to get rich,” Kelley says. “Nobody gets into public health to get famous. In fact, it’s public health, really… when things are going well, we are anonymous.”

But COVID...COVID-19...the Coronavirus, whichever you call it, found a way.

And now, Kelley’s is a face that now shows up on TV at least once a week.

“I think like everybody, you are not quite sure what to make of that,” Kelley says. “We’ve had other minor viruses that had been significant but nowhere near what this one became. We’ve had the MERS virus, the SARS virus.”

More than 101,000 cases and waves of restrictions, from the mask mandate in July to enforcing closing times in the fall.

Before that, I would meet with Kelley to talk about things like pertussis, bed bugs, the flu.

“It was way bigger and there was way more that we didn’t have control of,” Kelley says. “What kind of virus causes you to lose your sense of smell and taste? That’s just weird.”

Students like Carlos Powell, stuck overseas.

Schools first closed then re-opened, through computer screens.

All the while, public health officials and contact tracers raced against an invisible enemy.

“We have been contact tracing for decades in public health, centuries in public health. It goes back to medieval times,” Kelley says. “[COVID-19] was massive.”

Scenes like the one that ignited at Journey Church in Bozeman in July 2020 soon ignited across the country.

The Gallatin City-County Board of Health, in a public meeting to start requiring face coverings in the valley, hosted an auditorium filled with people, many speaking in angry voices.

To Kelley, it was a morning that caused a shift.

“One of the hardest times, in a church parking lot, I had somebody screaming in my face that they think that I should burn in hell, calling me a fascist and a communist that should burn in hell and I’m standing in a church parking lot, just coming out of a meeting that sort of occupied and was disrupted by people who were upset about having to wear face coverings and that was pretty disturbing,” Kelley says.

And that’s just scraping the surface.

You can catch part two of Cody’s report on Monday, March 15 and part three on Tuesday, March 16 on KBZK at 5:30, exploring more of the hardships and also the positives that people found during this last year.