Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Roger Dey

Coronavirus restrictions ripple into Ovando's summer


Roger Dey

Signs along Boot Tree Road remind travelers Ovando is open for business.

Summer in Ovando is shaping up to be a quiet one this year.

Business has been picking up for the small community in the last two weeks, after the state lifted the 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state visitors, but some mainstays of the community's summer will continue to feel the impact of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, after about a month-and-a-half of discussion that involved more than 20 members of the community, the town also opted to call off their annual, loosely-organized Fourth of July parade.

Dominoes on that decision began to fall with the cancellation of July 4th activities in other towns around the region, which led to uncertainty about how many people could show up looking for a place to celebrate.

With no idea of the numbers to expect, and the lingering risk to the area's aging population, the Ovando Volunteer Fire Department and Helmville Quick Response Unit canceled their annual barbecue, which in turn prompted cancellation of the parade.

"We were afraid - in a small little area with only one restaurant open - of being overwhelmed by people from Seeley and everyplace else that wasn't having a Fourth of July (celebration)," Kathy Schoendoerfer, owner of the Blackfoot Angler, explained. "A huge part of our population is older than I am. There was a lot of heartache in making that decision."

"It's one of those things that not everyone's happy about, but it happened either way," said Cindy Francis, the owner of Trixi's Antler Saloon. The parade normally kicks off from Trixi's parking lot.

Francis said this will also be the first time in 23 years they haven't had a dance on July 3. "It's a strange thing, but we're just gonna roll with it."

Schoendoerfer said the parade's cancellation, which was supported by two-thirds of the people they talked to, had nothing to do with politics.

"It's one year," she said. "It's just one year. It's better to be safe now than sorry later."

While the parade is a big one-day draw for Ovando, they are facing an even greater hit to their economy.

Early Sunday morning cyclist Eric Sime pedaled east out of Ovando. after taking a break for the night, and continued his trek south along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Cyclists like Sime are usually a common sight in Blackfoot Valley this time of year, with the Tour Divide Mountain Bike Race serving as a semi-official start to the cycling season.

"That's a sad story," said Schoendoerfer, Ovando's unofficial ambassador for the Tour Divide. '"The Grand Depart was going to be Friday (June 12), and instead of 200 people leaving from Banff, Alberta Canada, for the 2700-plus miles, there are two guys leaving from the U.S. border," she said.

Sime, of Wisconsin, was one of the two guys. He and Jeff Cullum of North Carolina were the only riders taking part in a Tour Divide-related independent time trial, a "solo blitz" of the trail.

Schoendoerfer said all the riders she keeps in touch with and expected to make the pared-down ride ultimately had to cancel. She said none of the international riders could come, and the Canadians who normally make the ride couldn't get out of their country.

Some cyclists who are tackling the GDMBR, or sections of it, have stopped by.

"We still have a few riders. We've had four," Shoendoerfer said.

Across the Ovando town square from the Angler is the Blackfoot Commercial Company and Inn, and owner Fred Valiton said his business will definitely take a hit with the loss of Tour Divide.

"It's going to affect me huge," he said. "The first 50 or 60 of them, all they do is cram food down." After the initial burst of highly competitive riders, they start spending time in town and looking around, he said.

Valiton said each rider spent between $10 and $20 in his store on high energy food and snacks, with later Tour riders sometimes spending the night at the Inn. "I am going to miss that."

The fallout isn't limited to Tour Divide. Schoendoerfer, who admitted she doesn't see much income from the cyclists personally, estimated they're losing about 1000 cyclists who normally come through every summer and has concerns about the impact to the community has a whole.

"In general we have a huge bicycle deal," Valiton said. "It doesn't matter if they're doing the Tour Divide or the Portland to Portland, or if they're doing the Lewis and Clark trail or anything else. There are several bike routes that all come through here. We get $10 -$20 out of every one of them. That's a big number. The last half of them start spending the night here."

Many of the cyclists who stay in Ovando pay $5 to spend the night in either the town's sheepherder's wagon, teepee or the historic jail.

That money supports the Ovando Improvement Fund, which in turn provides money to promote the community, including the town's website, This year, the fund was drained to cover the cost of redesigning and relaunching the town's website. Schoendoerfer said it went live just this month.

Valiton, whose business is about half of what it normally is, said it has been picking up since the state lifted the quarantine requirement but airline schedules are still taking a toll. With flights reduced to every other day in some cases, some of his expected guests' have seen their plans thrown into disarray.

The loss of business has also had a ripple effect by pushing their remodeling projects back a year. That in turn affects the contractor from Lincoln he was working with.

Things are looking up, however.

"My hotel was completely empty until 10 days ago, when they lifted the 14-day deal," Valtion said. "Now I have reservations. Starting the 15th of this month, I am slammed. I'm not totally booked, but I'm getting there; I'm taking reservations into September and October already."

His concern now is that another wave or spike in coronavirus cases will cause the state to re-implement the quarantine on visitors.

On the bright side, Valiton has seen an increase in Montana residents asking about reservations, and he thinks in-state tourism could be good for Ovando this year.

Roger Dey

Eric Sime poses for a photo at the BVD office on his way through Lincoln. Sime, representing half of this years' Tour Divide riders, is one of just two cyclists to take part in the official Individual Time Trials that replaced the regular race his year.

"People want to go someplace. They just want to go," he said. He sees Ovando's position between Yellowstone and Glacier as perfect for travelers to spend the night, or at least stop by and spend some money. Valiton said he also sends people who stop in up to Lincoln, to check out Sculpture in the Wild.

For Schoendoerfer, whose season has gotten off to a rocky start due to the fly shop's status as a non-essential business and, more recently, the weather, it's been the locals who have been a saving grace.

"I mean, God bless the local people who came in here and bought flies for next August, just because they wanted to help us. They wanted to stimulate our local economy," she said. "The could go into town and maybe get some of this stuff for cheaper, but they're helping us. I cannot say how thankful I am for that, literally."

Regardless of how 2020 turns out, there is optimism about next year.

"We're just really, really looking forward to a great 2021," Francis said.


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