After being cooped up since the first week of March, I recently took a two-week, 3,122-mile road trip to 21 counties in eastern Montana. I wanted to be where there is no virus (and coming from a county where a case had not been reported for several weeks, I did not want to start a problem). I chose eastern Montana because most counties there have NEVER recorded a case of COVID-19 and when I was there only a couple of counties had an active case. There are many reasons for that, not the least of which is that almost no one lives in eastern Montana (east of Billings), but I suspect that another major reason is that there had been little or no testing for coronavirus there. I was basically flying blind.
What I found was mostly comforting: that spring was in fact on its way (May is by far the best time to visit the high plains), that the landscape has largely escaped industrial agriculture, that the people are still making a go of it against all odds.
But I also found that many public spaces, such as a U. S. Forest Service campground that would normally be open or a community playground devoid of kids on a warm spring afternoon, indicated that the threat of COVID-19 was present even if the virus was not. Of course, that threat is invisible, and thus social distancing, let alone masks, are about as scarce as the virus. The effect is unsettling and dangerous: it appears that nothing at all has changed, yet we all know it fundamentally has even if we choose to ignore it.
The other reason for my trip was to visit the border to see how the virus could enter the state if we allowed it to. I had been part of an effort to influence Governor Bullock in late-April as he was deciding how to start opening the state. (This was just a couple of days after a death cult goose-stepped around the Capitol Building in Helena. Then, as now, I largely support the Governor’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts.) We wanted the Governor to expand his travel directive for screening and monitoring beyond air and train travel to include vehicular traffic. What I wanted to know was how anyone coming into the state on a highway would know that they were to self-quarantine for 14 days (unless they were just passing through the state—truckers—or were a health care or public safety professional).
I visited all 11 major border crossings in the eastern part of the state, from Belfry along the Wyoming border all the way up to Westby near the border with Canada (I did not visit Canadian border crossings because they are closed). I wondered what drivers would see as they entered the state that would let them know that self-quarantining was required of most travelers.
I found lots of border crossings with a portable highway department sign flashing “Keep Your Distance, Prevent COVID-19” but nowhere near a border was there any signage indicating the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine. I did find two large portable signs displaying “Non Essential Out of State Visitors, Mandatory 14 Day Quarantine”, but they were both on the interstate far away from any border or major tourist destination.
While on the road, I noticed that the Lewis and Clark County Public Health Department (among other counties) posted 14-day quarantine notices on social media, but I never saw any similar announcement on or near a border crossing. How would anyone entering the state know of the Governor’s directive? The answer, for most, is that they wouldn’t.
Until there is a safe and effective vaccine that is freely available, Montanans can’t afford to start making mistakes. That’s why I started a petition to request the Governor test everyone for coronavirus who wants to enter the state. This shouldn’t be too difficult: we already test all boaters to keep zebra mussels out of our lakes and streams. It’s the next best way we are going to remain safe and healthy going into the fall.
Please sign the petition, and share it widely for your sake and that of your neighbors in Montana.