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Upper Blackfoot not seeing bump in lodging revenue experienced in other areas

Despite reports of vacation rental increases across Montana in response to COVID-19, hotels in the Lincoln and Ovando area haven’t seen that business.

An article from the Montana Free Press on March 27 cited estimated increases in vacation rental revenue from 36 percent in Red Lodge to 107 percent in Livingston during the first half of March, with similar increases expected in Big Sky and Whitefish.

With Montana’s first reported COVID-19 case reported March 13, and Gov. Steve Bullock’s directives that residents stay at home and that all visitors to Montana self-quartantine for 14 days, area hotels are seeing a definite hit to business.

Lincoln’s Three Bears Motel, owned by Bob and Pattie Weatherston, has felt the difference. Pattie Weatherston said, “We’ve basically had almost everybody cancel. I think some people are hanging on for the Putt-Putt, but for the most part, almost everything up through mid-June has been canceled. A lot of our weekends were full this time of year, with reservations and people just stopping through. So, yeah, it’s been a huge impact.”

Fred Valiton, who owns the Blackfoot Commercial Company and Ovando Inn with Leigh Ann Valiton, has a similar story. “I have nobody renting rooms, and that has impacted me terrifically. A huge amount of our income this time of year is dependent on that hotel.”

This time of year, Valiton said they normally see groups on fishing trips and early vacationers.

The Valitons have closed the Inn for the duration of the Governor’s Directive.

“I’m hoping for June” to re-open, Valiton said. “It’s all based on the Governor right now.”

He said they’re also trying to avoid situations like Whitefish and Kalispell, where visitors from places with high infection rates tried to rent out facilities for several months at a time.

Valiton and Weatherston are both concerned about the long-term impacts of closures on their businesses, as well.

“One of the things that is going to impact us here is the Great Divide Bicycle Race that runs from Banff to New Mexico. It looks like they might not be able to run this year. That’s hundreds of customers a month I’m not going to have for three or four months,” Valiton said.

“I don’t know how this is going to impact us going farther; if people are going to look at more rural areas when they vacation,” said Weatherston. “And then with the economic impact with hunters, (we don’t know) if we’ll see less hunters or more.”

Local grocers have seen increased business, however.

The Valitons, who also sell groceries, said they’ve seen an uptick in that business. They’re taking custom orders and have seen greater usage by local shoppers who don’t want to go to Missoula. They’ve instituted guidelines, such as one shopper in the store at time, to help minimize contact. The store is still seeing visitors from the highway, but only one or two a day now, said Valiton.

Lincoln’s D&D Foodtown has also seen a change in store traffic, with shoppers traveling from as far away as Kalispell, especially on the store’s delivery days. Lori Arambarri said cleaning supplies are still difficult to get, and the store only receives about 50 percent of their requested orders each week, but that business is remaining steady.

“We’re supplying the locals, and that’s what we’re here for. If there’s something special someone needs, we try to get it,” she said. “It’s had an impact for sure. It has on everybody. There’s no way around that.”


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