HELENA — The road into the east side of Glacier National Park is quiet right now, but with tourist season around the corner, area business owners and employees hope that will soon change.
After a year of COVID-19-related shut downs, this summer is particularly important. “Everything is going to be okay, is the kind of feeling I have right now,” Native Life store manager Lisa Longtime Sleeping said. “I am so excited for tourist season, we usually get tourists from all over the world.”
Native Life is a specialty fabric, sewing needs, and gift shop in Browning. While they are open year-round, Longtime Sleeping called summer their “bread and butter.” She said income from tourist and powwow season keep them going through the rest of the year.
“It’s not like we had a lot of cushion to fall back on,” Longtime Sleeping said, recalling the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Blackfeet Reservation. “If we had to shut down for an extended period of time, it did cross my mind that this could be the end of Native Life.”
Businesses on the reservation experienced near complete shut downs during the pandemic, including during the vital summer tourism season. For Two Sisters cafe near Babb, that meant losing an entire year of income. “Well of course, my stomach sank, and I won’t lie, there was some panic involved,” Two Sisters co-owner Susan Higgins said.
Two Sisters is only open four months of the year—June through September. They learned about the shutdowns right as they were opening for the summer season. “We essentially lost about 100% of our income last year,” Higgins said.
But both Native Life and Two Sisters made it through, and the situation now looks different than last year.
Blackfeet tribal leaders recently announced the reservation moved into Phase III of their COVID-19 reopening plan. Blackfeet Tribe public information officer James McNeely said businesses must have COVID-19 mitigation and response plans in place, and masks are still mandatory, but other restrictions are beginning to loosen.
Along with Phase III, the tribe announced the reopening of the east entrance of Glacier National Park. “It was based on numbers—vaccine numbers, case numbers, all of that,” McNeely said.
As of March 24, Blackfeet Nation has no active COVID-19 cases on the reservation, and a more than 95% vaccination rate.
“We are returning to a sense of normal, but we are remaining vigilant,” McNeely said.
Businesses are being careful too, and making plans in case of another COVID-19-related shut down.
At Two Sisters, Higgins said they used COVID-19 relief funds to open a drive-thru coffee stand. Not only does it fill a need in the area, but Higgins said it will also ensure they won’t be in the same position as last summer. “It will allow us to have some low-contact sales should we have another breakout (of COVID-19) and have to close the restaurant,” Higgins said. “We will still have a cashflow position.”
Native Life is continuing a stronger online presence—something that owner Angela Johnson said helped survive the pandemic to this point. “We have learned a lot, we have a marketing plan,” Johnson said. “We have improved some of our own skills out of necessity.”
Now, more than a year after the first COVID-19 safety measures were put in place on the Blackfeet Reservation, life and business seem to be returning to some sort of normalcy. “I’m going into this summer very optimistic,” Higgins said. “I feel really excited because I think we’re going to be quite busy.”