Flathead Beacon: Tester Trumpets COVID-19 Relief Bill in Kalispell, Praises Local Leaders

by Micah Drew

Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester visited Kalispell Tuesday morning to discuss the benefits that Kalispell residents, and Montanans statewide, would receive from the latest COVID-19 relief bill.

“The bottom line is this: the American Rescue Plan provides critical resources that get Montana businesses, schools and communities reopening as quickly as possible,” Tester, a Democrat, said from the Kalispell Brewing Company taproom. “And we are already seeing the benefits.”

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was passed along party lines in Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on March 11. The bill included direct $1,400 payments to most Americans and extended $300 weekly emergency unemployment benefits into September. The package also boosted funding for COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts and included additional support for state, local and tribal governments, schools, hospitals and businesses, extending the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Maggie Doherty, owner of Kalispell Brewing Company, received a PPP loan last year to help keep her business afloat during the pandemic.

“If this was last year, this place would be shut down. Our taproom was shut down eight weeks last year,” Doherty said, noting that the taproom generates 75% of the business’ sales. “However, Main Street jobs and our phenomenal employees are critical to us.”

Doherty was able to keep all seven fulltime employees on payroll during the shutdown, but even after the taproom reopened, the business took a hit from losing several vendors and retailers in Glacier National Park as well as a shortage in aluminum cans that created packaging woes across the brewing industry.

“When you’re a small business owner, you think you’re accustomed to all the challenges, you’re really good at drinking water out of a fire hydrant, but a pandemic is a whole other story,” Doherty said. “Businesses like ours have gone above and beyond to ensure health and safety and we need plans like this to help us – plans to help our parents who are supporting their kids, plans to keep us rolling.”

“We’re really proud of what we’ve done, but we know we’re still a long way out in the process, so we appreciate everything that’s coming out of Washington,” she continued.

Tester also praised the efforts of Health Officer Joe Russell and Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill for their efforts during the last year.

“I was on the radio this morning, Joe, and they said, you know Joe was in retirement, but he came back because this pandemic is what Joe has lived for,” Tester said. “I doubt that’s true, but I really appreciate you coming back and doing a stellar job.”

Russell said the most important part of the relief bill is the local funding. The plan allocates $5.95 million in direct support to the city of Kalispell and roughly $20 million to Flathead County.

“We have the ability to continue to provide vaccination in this community … and most people don’t understand how much it costs to vaccinate,” Russell said. “This money will fund our public health response means into June, so I really appreciate that.”

Superintendent Hill said the district, which serves more than 6,000 students and employs more than 750 staff members, lost 700 students to remote learning during the school year, 10% of the school’s population.

He said that previous funding helped purchase supplies, technology and equipment for students and teachers to continue the learning process with as few disruptions as possible. Part of the next round of funding will help with plans to address any learning losses that remote students, or those affected by sickness or quarantines, may be facing in the future.

“We look forward to the challenges but we also are very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Hill said. “We did not shut down one school for one day.”

Also included in the American Relief Plan is $1 billion that Tester secured for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, with $165 million specifically earmarked for long-distance Amtrak routes, such as the Empire Builder line, which runs from Chicago to the West Coast through Montana.

Daily service along the Empire Builder route, which serves 12 communities across northern Montana, was cut to three days a week in October. Along Montana’s Hi-Line, the Empire Builder is often the only public transportation option, and Whitefish is the busiest stop between Minneapolis and the West Coast.

“If the Bakken gets up and going again, which it will, it will allow for travel out to the Bakken in Eastern Montana,” Tester said. “Of course you guys have recreational opportunities like no other in the lower 48 – that’s going to allow for good safe travel there.”

The provision in the American Rescue Plan calls for service along the long-distance route to be restored within 90 days. The Empire Builder Line will return to daily service on May 24.

“It is an economic driver that, quite honestly, I think that the federal government we should pay more attention to,” Tester said. “There’s just incredible opportunities here to be able to allow people to get around this country in a very, very safe and economical way.”