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Summer is usually busy season for Montana tourism, but virus has upended things

Posted at 10:01 AM, Jul 24, 2020

There is something unique about places like Montana. There is an uncertainty to what you could find in “Big Sky Country.”

That is a quality that has always driven Joseph Haas’ guide and outfitting business, A Lazy H Outfitters. But this year has brought a kind of uncertainty, unique to anything he’s faced before.

"By February, it just cratered to almost zero at all in terms of requests for even any information at all," Haas said. “It was, it was scary.”

This time of year, people travel from all over to have Haas lead them on multi-day horseback tours through the Montana wilderness, usually.

"We have very few customers from the east or west coast, California in particular, we are seeing almost nothing from California," Haas said.

Haas' business is located in Choteau, Montana, a town with a population of about 1,700 people. Summer is usually the busy season in the community, which located along the shortest route between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

“I would think that we’ve probably had at least 95% of the events we had booked canceled and reservation-wise," said Barb Bouma, who owns the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association says hotel occupancy levels might not recover until 2022 nationwide. Bouma doesn’t know if her hotel will make it that far.

“It’s not sustaining itself. How long we can go, yeah I’m not sure," Bouma said.

Like many business owners in the pandemic, Haas has had to cut back.

"Right now, I have one person. Normally, I would have two or three in the summer," Haas said about the number of employees he has getting gear ready for his trips.

He says reservations for his business have started to pick up again. He also says reservations for hunting trips he offers are booked years in advance and have held steady.

As Haas starts to lead people back into the wild to show off the rugged uncertainty of “Big Sky County,” he hopes the struggles he’s faced this year stay unique to 2020.

“There’s so much more known about the coronavirus now," Haas said. "If they can travel, the known will outweigh the risk for people.”