Sweet Grass County adjusting to a virus that is global in scope

Sweet Grass County adjusting to a virus that is global in scope
Thursday, March 19, 2020
Sweet Grass County adjusting to a virus that is global in scope

Above, bare shelves in the Big T IGA as people panic shop and hoard certain items. For some reason toilet paper is the most common item missing from shelves across the nation. Pioneer Photos by Elias Baer

Sweet Grass County adjusting to a virus that is global in scope

Left, the high school parking lot has been nearly empty since Governor Bullock ordered the statewide closure of all public schools. On Wednesday there were only four cars in the lot.

In Yorktown during the surrender of the British army to continental troops to end the Revolutionary War, the British regimental band reportedly played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The current coronavirus pandemic may remind some of us of that song. The Sweet Grass community is being rapidly transformed to head off the spread of the virus. Here are some examples:


The Pioneer Medical Center (PMC) in Big Timber is taking steps to prepare for the imminent first case of coronavirus in Sweet Grass County.

According to County Public Information Officer Cliff Brophy, “the PMC is using the universal precautions. They’re sanitizing everything and screening individuals before allowing them in. They’ve set up an isolation room for suspected cases. They (PMC) prefer that individuals call 911 and describe their symptoms to dispatch.”

As Sweet Grass County has yet to experience a coronavirus case as of Wednesday, this is all uncharted territory, but PMC does have some general guidelines they’d like the public to follow. First and foremost, the PMC urges the public to speak with primary health care providers over the phone before walking into a hospital or clinic.

“If someone’s experiencing symptoms they’re (PMC) asking that they call health their care providers first and ask what they should do,” Brophy explained, “rather than just walking in to the hospital and putting other people at risk.”

The PMC is equipped with a limited number of tests for use to critical patients only.

“Testing is very limited,” Brophy said. “PMC won’t just do a test because someone wants a test. Testing is reserved for more critical cases. Obviously treatment and testing will all be on a case-by-case basis.”

With the high transmission rate of the coronavirus, isolation and self-care are the most responsible steps a person can take if they are experiencing the symptoms of coronavirus, including a high fever, a dry cough and muscle soreness.

“Isolating yourself and limiting contact with others is key,” said Brophy. “If you are experiencing any of these symptoms isolate yourself.” If an individual begins exhibiting some of the more serious symptoms, like extreme difficulty breathing, the recommendation is to call 911 or a health care provider.

Brophy also recommends people refrain from hoarding so that everyone will have access to some of the basic necessities such as soap and toilet paper. It is also important to note that, with a virus such as Covid-19, hand sanitizer will only be effective if it is over 60 percent alcohol.

City and government

Police are vital members of our community and they are at high risk for contamination, since they consistently interact with strangers on a daily basis, but they are taking precautions to protect themselves on the job.

“We doing more sanitizing and my officers are wiping off the seats as best as they can, but it’s hard since they’re cloth,” Sheriff Alan Ronneburg explained. “They have eye protection, mask and are encouraged to wear gloves. When we respond with ambulances we wear our protective gear.”

The coronavirus is something of an unprecedented epidemic in the U.S. and hasn’t really been something police have trained for in the past.

“We don’t really train for something like this. That’s something department of emergency services (DES) and the local emergency planning committee (LEPC) gear up for,” said Ronneburg.

As of now, the Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s Department is fully functional and does not plan to reduce officer’s hours.

“Right now its all business as usual,” Ronneburg said. “It’ll just have to be played by ear. I’m just trying to have my officers be wary. Arresting individuals is our biggest risk.”

The county commissioners have declared a state of emergency at the local level “which maybe open the door to federal funding,” said Commissioner J.V. Moody on Tuesday, adding “we do recognize this is a large public health issue.

“We have been talking with local businesses all day. It is scary, but we are not yet looking at a mandatory thing,” Moody said. He noted the county hopes the virus won’t spread as fast here as in larger areas.

“We are taking a proactive approach and we are unified,” Moody said. “It’s evolving all of the time and we are learning from mistakes. We are unique here in the county with everybody looking out for each other,” he added.

County Clerk and Recorder Vera Pederson said she had to cancel election judges training for now. She said she must appoint judges and complete their training at least 30 days before the primary election set for June 2.

Food services

So far at least nine states across the U.S. have ordered all bars and restaurants close until further notice, including Michigan, Washington, California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Montana has yet to take such an extreme measure, but the possibility of the Governor ordering the closure of non-essential businesses is ever present.

In Big Timber several establishments have reverted to a delivery only option, including Iron Star Pizza Company and Wok and Roll, just to name a couple.

“We made the switch to take-out only on Sunday night. When the Governor closed the schools we made the switch. We figured being proactive and mitigating the virus is a responsible business practice,” said Justin Arlian, owner of Iron Star. “Especially since we have an older community and those are the folks at risk.”

At the Iron Star employees are required to wipe everything down on a 30 minute timeframe and especially when customers come in to pick up food. As of now, their hours haven’t changed, but Arlian is still playing it by ear and waiting to see what happens.

“So far staffing hasn’t really been affected,” Arlian said. “Some employees have kids, so we’re moving some things around to mitigate some of that.”

Things are different at the Thirsty Turtle, where owner Tiffany Satre said she doesn’t really have the option to close right now.

“We don’t plan on changing anything until the government makes us,” Satre said. “For me and my husband this is our only source of income. Plus our employees rely on us and we don’t want to let them down.”

That’s not to say that the owners or employees at the Thirsty Turtle are ignoring the threat of the virus.

“We’re upping everything sanitation wise. We sanitize anything customers handle. Menus, booths,” said Satre. “We’re doing everything we can to stop from spreading the virus while still staying open.”

The Big Timber Food Bank is taking a cautious approach to the situation. At first the food bank decided to allow no more than two clients at a time inside, but now there will be no clients whatsoever in the food bank.

According to Julie Kinsey, a volunteer at the food bank, “people have to call in and we’ll put their groceries on a table outside. Because our volunteers are so old we just can’t risk any contact at all.”

For now the food bank will still operate on its normal business hours, but they have a new email and contact per son.

“I think we’re going to be well supplied,” said Kinsey, “although we don’t have a ton of toilet paper.”

As far as churches, one of four Big Timber churches The Pioneer contacted responded to a call.

Duane Bartz, minister at the First Congregational Church, they had not yet decided whether they should suspend Sunday services at this point.

“We’re paying attention to things but we are not sure about our services this week,” Bartz said. “It is difficult for a number of reasons.”


All schools in the county and Big Timber are closed until at least March 27. That includes the three rural schools, which also are closed for at least two weeks. The rural schools and Big Timber Grade School are distributing packets to their students to provide remote education to them. According to County Superintendent Susan Metcalf, each school has sent out information for parents on the procedures each school will follow. The high school also is remotely teaching it students.

High school Supt. Brad Moore did not respond to email questions.

“A big concern is breakfast and lunch for those who qualify for free and reduced meals and they will be provided with a take-out service,” Metcalf said.

Spring sports have been suspended and may be cancelled. The state spelling bee in Bozeman was also cancelled.

More community information will in next week’s issue.