Daines listens to anxious West Glacier business community

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines visited West Glacier on Friday morning to meet with local business leaders affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of Glacier National Park.

About a dozen members of the West Glacier business community joined Montana’s Republican senator at Glacier Outdoor Center for the roundtable. All expressed concerns and frustrations over the way COVID-19 has impacted the local economy and their businesses.

Jeff Baldelli, co-owner of Glacier Raft Company and the Glacier Outdoor Center, said the local economy has gone into a “downward spiral” since lockdowns began in March. He said he has had numerous cancellations and had to refund many deposits.

Right now, Baldelli said, he would usually need three employees answering phones due to the volume of calls. But not this year.

“I realize it’s a challenging time,” Baldelli said. But he “wanted some clarity” about when Glacier Park would open to “help us prepare for the summer.”

On Thursday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said gates on the west side of the park would open the second week of June, and on June 1 the governor will lift the order that non-essential out-of-state visitors quarantine for 14 days.

But the east side will remain closed until the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council lifts its restrictions on non-essential travel.

“It’s a survival year,” said Joe Hoff, owner of Glacier Highland gas station and the Glacier Vista Hotel. He said he received his loan from the Paycheck Protection Program but said the money was “misdirected.”

“It doesn’t pay my mortgage unless I cook the books,” Hoff said.

Daines said 22,000 Paycheck Protection loans have been made to Montana businesses for about $1.7 billion. He said he would work with Congress on adjusting the program to make the loans more favorable for business owners.

Aubrie LoRona of Swan Mountain Outfitters said her business was hit at the very beginning, as she lost the last quarter of the snowmobile season. She said not many people are canceling longer wilderness trips planned far in advance, but her revenue is down 60% due to the short-term, “spontaneous buys.”

“We have 150 horses … Those horses are going to eat and drink no matter what,” LoRona said.

She said she is anxious about the uncertainty surrounding Glacier Park’s reopening.

“I think it’s been uber-conservative to the point where it’s been detrimental,” she said.

Brian Kelly, owner of the Isaak Walton Inn, said he is not pleased by “the lack of communication from the governor’s office with what we can expect.” He said he has already had 22 weddings canceled this summer.

Kelly also asked why the Department of the Interior could not step in and assist with the situation, as national parks are federal land. Daines said David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Interior, had made the decision to yield to authorities at the state and local level.

Gary Hamilton of Hamilton Industries, which manufactures souvenirs, was confused why a national park like Yellowstone could open – a park he called an “observation” park where large groups of people naturally gather together – while Glacier Park was still closed.

“You have natural social distancing” in Glacier Park, Hamilton said.

He said he has to buy inventory almost a year in advance, which puts him in “a very tough situation.” He said he was especially concerned about the winter months when there is little money to be made.

Other attendees were also frustrated that other popular parks – Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Zion, for instance – have already opened. There were also concerns about the closure of the Canadian border plus when the Blackfeet Tribe would let the east side of the park open to visitors.

And while employers are unsure how many foreign workers will make it here this summer, they are concerned about the long-term effects the pandemic could have on the J-1 Visa Exchange Program.

Jack Gladstone, a local singer and songwriter who is part of Glacier’s Native America Speaks program, was at the roundtable “speaking as a tribal member.” He said the Tribal Council “seems to be very data-driven” and is concerned about the spread of the virus “once they take the restraints off.”

“It’s like that scene in ‘Jaws’ where they let people go back out into the bay and swim,” he said. “The word of warning is that the shark is still there and ready to be active.

“Try to harmonize with our tribe, because we have done some very progressive, mature things,” Gladstone added.

Monica Jungster, owner of the Montana House in Apgar, said she is concerned about the safety of her employees.

“They are all well over 60, some with pre-existing conditions,” Jungster said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen when I open the door. I know that my employees have concerns,” she added. “I might have to put in some restrictions myself.”