As coronavirus continues to surge in places around the country, what you see on the TV news tends to be the worst scenarios. But there are wide swaths of rural America that have had an entirely different experience. Today, we begin at one of the last places in the country to see its first case of COVID-19. And what stands out isn’t how long the virus took to get there, but how they handled things when it arrived.
It’s bacon and eggs for breakfast at the one and only local cafe where life looks pretty much like it has for most of the past few weeks, years, and even decades.
Vicki Fix: The town office is also a historic building.
Vicki Fix is Mayor of Ekalaka, Montana, population somewhere a bit north of 300, 1200 in the whole county. Founded around 1885.
Vicki Fix: It started by a man who wanted to build a saloon, and his wagon got stuck in the mud and he said, "Well, this looks as good a place as any, and so he started a saloon.”
As it happens, this old western town was one of the last places in America to get its first case of coronavirus.
While much of the world saw alarming numbers starting last spring, it would be another six months before Covid-19 would find its way here.
Terry Stieg: I mean, this ain't the end of the world, but you can see it from here.
At the Wagon Wheel café, the first people I talked to had recently caught and survived coronavirus.
Stieg: I just got turned loose yesterday morning.
Sharyl: Did you think it was coming?
Stieg: Oh yeah. It's like anything else. Our turn was coming.
Alan Hutchinson: My daughters called me and told me that I probably had it because they got it.
Sharyl: How did you feel?
Hutchinson: Just a slight cold, that was it.
Sharyl (on camera): Here in Ekalaka, by the time they finally got their first case of coronavirus, they say they’d already learned a lot by watching what had happened everywhere else.
Raeleigh Montgomery: We were kind of watching it because it didn't seem like ever real here. Not that it wasn't real, but we weren't actually experiencing it. We weren't going into big stores where everybody was wearing a mask everywhere and everybody was social distancing. We were just still like our little town taking our own precautions, but it was nothing as big as like on the news, like what we saw everywhere else.
Raeleigh Montgomery says the community suffered greatly during the spring shutdown and watched the rest of the world suffer, too.
NBC Correspondent: The crisis in New York reaching a critical mass, paramedics now empowered to make life and death decisions.
Sheriff Neil Kittelmann: We were six months out from even having it close to our county and we were locked down.
Sheriff Neil Kittelmann also just got over a bout with Covid-19.
Kittelmann: When it finally got here, then we could have shut down. But like I said, when it got here, people's already tired of the games.
Steve DeFord: Well, at first, they locked us down like everybody else, when we didn't have a case. We went on and on for quite a while. We were even doing our services online entirely for a few weeks.
At the First Baptist Church, Pastor Steve DeFord says after the spring closure, time passed, nobody got sick, and things eventually went back to normal. By the time Coronavirus did rear its ugly head, they were determined to resist another shutdown.
So unlike much of the rest of the country they haven’t missed a beat with in-person Sunday church.
Sharyl: Would you say life is going on pretty much as it was?
DeFord: Yeah, it's going on kind of as usual in a way. For one thing, we live in an agricultural ranching community, and I'm sorry, the animals have to be fed. Life has to go on. You can't just shut down the supplies that are needed to maintain those ranches. You got to just keep moving, keep going.
Perhaps the most interesting story is what’s happened with Ekalaka schools.
Raeleigh: In the beginning is when schools shut down and around here pretty much every family you find there's going to be four to six kids, a lot, so it was tough on a lot of people to have to have all their kids home and a lot of times people are at ranches, they don't have internet or anything, so it was really hard for us to access schooling.
With schools shut down last Spring, it was hard on everyone, teacher and school employees made this video.
(School video of "we miss you" signs)
When May came, and they still didn’t have a single case, they had their high school graduation ceremony.
Graduation Ceremony: You may move your tassels. You are officially done with high school. Congratulations to the class of 2020 graduates.
Stephen Ely is the high school principal and school superintendent. He moved here from Florida after the spring shutdown just in time to deliberate a fall closing when coronavirus finally arrived.
Stephen Ely: The effect on the students here must've been dramatic in the spring, because they were adamant. We had a board meeting where there was talk about not coming back to school for a few weeks. A majority of our students showed up and demanded that they be allowed to come to school. They didn't want to go home. They didn't want distance learning. They wanted to be at school, and they stood up and voiced their opinion, in a very adult way, when some adults weren't being much adult about it, they were.
And so school went forward in Ekalaka. Even with coronavirus in town, they played a full fall of team sports.
Ely: When I had a chance to speak to our football team, and to our girl's volleyball team, I said, "Listen, you're blessed. Not everybody in this country is going to get to go out and play tonight, you guys get to. Don't ever think that we're out here in Ekalaka, Montana, and nobody cares about us. Well, people care about you, and you need to be proud of the fact that you get to do this.”
Teaching looks different here, too. Mrs. Sharon Carroll, the math teacher is back now, but not long ago, she was under quarantine after contact with someone who had coronavirus. Instead of shuttering the doors they’ve flipped the script. Kids still come to class. Here she is actually speaking to the class from home, through the TV monitor.
Ely: It's business as usual for the kids. It's been very seamless. It seems to be a whole lot easier, for the one or two that have to be out to get into the classroom, than just to say everybody's got to go and have a teacher in this room by themselves, trying to get to all these homes. And in this case, it's been very effective.
During our visit, about 80 people in the county of 12-hundred had gotten Covid-19. And all in all, the townsfolk told us just because they’re handling things differently doesn’t mean they’re not taking it seriously.
Kittlemann: I think it was serious enough to kill people. So it's serious.
They just say every community has unique needs, and should decide what’s best for them.
Kittlemann: Even our governor needed to just stay back and let the locals take care of the locals. That's the way the system's supposed to run.
DeFord: We're not reckless. We're not careless. We obviously try to practice good hygiene. We sanitize and do things like that around here. In the end, it's God who's going to protect us. And that's been primarily my focus.
Sharyl (on camera): When we visited, there had been three coronavirus deaths in Ekalaka, all in the local nursing home where they say everyone is isolated, sterilized and masked religiously.