Six months ago, our lives were as normal as anything we’ve become accustomed to in northeastern Wyoming.
There was nothing special about our regular trips to the grocery store, to grab a quick bite to eat and picking up supplies for the spring home improvement season. Families excitedly counted down the days until spring break, and our perennially competitive high school basketball teams were in Casper for the state tournament with high expectations to contend for multiple championships.
The term “social distancing” had only just been introduced, we weren't in the habit of incessantly washing and sanitizing their hands and few could define what a “public health order” is.
Now six months into our iteration of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems everyday life is dominated by those orders, distancing, mask-wearing and a growing political divide that’s grown around a public health crisis unprecedented in our modern society.
As arguments continue to boil about how dangerous, virulent, contagious and important the novel coronavirus is, there’s no debate that the last 200 days have radically changed how we live our lives. The list of changes is long and varied, including that a short 200 days ago:
Our routines now include having sanitizer and masks within reach nearly all the time, avoiding handshakes and other unnecessary contact and, for some families, educating children at home instead of sending them to public schools.
We’re also bombarded daily with the numbers at the local, state, national and global levels: How many new confirmed and probable cases have we had in the last 24 hours? How many recoveries? How many deaths? How many have been tested? What’s the ratio of the tests that return positive results?
For Campbell County, the numbers tell us that since Wyoming had its first confirmed case March 11 and Gov. Mark Gordon followed President Donald Trump’s lead in declaring a public health emergency March 13, which makes Sept. 28 the official 200-day mark. Campbell County has as of Friday morning:
But to understand the impacts of the first 200 days of the pandemic is to go far beyond the numbers. That's reflected in our and experiences and has many perspectives. From our teachers, families, small business owners, health care workers and senior citizens, here are some stories about these 200 days of change.
Parents have their hands full explaining COVID-19 to their kids
Carleigh Clifton remembers Sept. 11, 2001. She was in the sixth grade and about the same age as her stepson, Presley, is now.
Nineteen years after that world-changing event, she looks on as she tries to help Presley and her daughter, Leah, understand another world-changing event that lacks the powerful visuals and emotions caused by seeing planes bringing down the twin towers.
She’s trying to explain a pandemic, a global passing of invisible germs. She’s trying to explain COVID-19.
Clifton, 31, said there are similarities between now and 9/11, most notable an underlying feeling that the world we used to know has changed.
“I was watching the news, like ‘what’s going on?’” she said. “I think I was just a kid. ... Not saying (my kids) don’t know what’s going on, but I was so unaware of how big it was.”
Clifton remembered her parents reacting to 9/11 and how it affected her as a child. Now, she sees COVID-19 from the other side of the table as a parent, cognizant that her reactions are dictating a lot of what her kids understand about the pandemic.
“I think it’s affecting my kids in a similar way even though it’s a different situation," she said. "I remember seeing my parents panic a little, and that makes you panic, but I think they did a good job of explaining it to us.
"I thank them for that because, in this situation, I’m able to explain it, hopefully, as best as I can as well.”
Her efforts at explanation must tackle the disruptions to everyday life that parents outside New York City and Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, didn’t have to explain after 9/11.
Simple things like going grocery shopping together have been reconsidered, Clifton said, adding there have been moments when her daughter has lashed out at the unfairness of it all.
The restrictions have impeded the most basic aspects of childhood, like playing on the playground equipment at Lasting Legacy Park. A few of the family’s numerous walks around the Mount Pisgah Cemetery and the park would be interrupted by one of the kids with, “Ahhh, I really want to play," Clifton said.
Then would come the explanations about why they couldn’t play when there were other kids already on the equipment at that moment.
“I explained, ‘All parents have different ... rules.' I think my kids understood our caution," she said. "They looked at it as that’s what their parents’ rules are.”
The need to explain family decisions to young kids is difficult when comparing them to what strangers are doing, but even more so when there are multiple components to the family unit.
Clifton said that her family, which is blended, has been fortunate that all parents view the risks posed by COVID-19 the same way.
“We’re a blended family and luckily (Presley’s) family on his side also agreed,” she said. “I feel for the people that have those blended families that don’t agree, so it’s very confusing for the children when they hear one thing from one family and another thing from another family. That’s when I think it gets more difficult. We’re very blessed.”
— Cary Littlejohn
Small business owners see resurgence after rough start to pandemic
Things are almost back to normal for Tara Stoneking, owner of Magpie Designs.
She closed her store at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has since reopened. And last month was one of the best Augusts her store has ever had.
She’s now preparing for the holiday season and is optimistic the next three months, despite the pandemic, will be great for local retailers.
“I’m feeling that we’re going to have a really good (increase) of people shopping small,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a stellar holiday season.”
But just six and a half months ago, she was considering all of her options, including what would happen if she had to close the store for good.
“Thankfully, we didn’t have to go that route,” she said. “We were able to pull through.”
It hasn’t felt like 200 days have passed since this all began, Stoneking said. It seems much longer than that, but strangely at the same time, it also feels like almost no time has passed at all.
She recalled an in-store event March 14, when someone asked her how COVID had affected her business. Then, the only effect was that shipping on some products had been delayed, but that was it.
That was the day after Gov. Mark Gordon declared a state emergency because of the virus.
“A week later, we were closed,” she said.
Then, Stoneking said she thought that in a worst-case scenario was the virus would be around until Father’s Day.
Today, Gillette is in a weird place. The coronavirus is still here but at levels other cities would feel lucky to have, she said.
“I’m so thankful the extremes didn’t happen in Gillette like how they could’ve happened,” Stoneking said. “But we didn’t know in the middle of March what was going to happen.”
She was trying to figure out what survival mode looked like, and it wasn’t until the first part of May when she felt comfortable going forward. At that point, her mindset changed to being concerned about her business ending to figuring out what adjustments to make to thrive again.
While the store was closed, she worked to make sure she had an online presence so people could still shop without coming into the store. Magpie Designs had a website, but it only had a curated selection of products.
“I was lucky I had a foundation built, but it was time-consuming to make sure the entire store (was on there),” she said.
She also spent a lot of time repainting the store floor, rearranging things and improving the website. The store reopened in July.
And in some ways, the pandemic has helped local businesses become more creative and flexible in finding ways to stay afloat or even remaking themselves.
“There’ve been a lot of good things that have come out of having to re-imagine retail,” she said.
The pandemic also gave Stoneking a chance to spend more time with her family.
Her daughter, Avery, started kindergarten this fall. Avery’s asked her about COVID a couple of times, wondering when it’s going to be over and she won’t have to wear a mask to school. But because this is her first year in school, “she knows no difference.”
“This is normal for her, and she’s fine with it,” Stoneking said.
The biggest thing that has came out of the pandemic is the show of community support, she said.
“We have so many local people that are wanting to now come shop in the local stores,” she said. “Our community has really pulled together behind that. We’ve always helped each other out, but you can really feel it this season.”
Things aren’t quite back to normal. Getting products shipped to the store has been tough since March, and Stoneking still hasn’t caught up.
Historically, retail is down during an election year, and with COVID thrown into the mix, “it’s completely changed the entire game,” she said.
It is uncharted territory and there’s no telling what the future holds.
“I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring sales-wise,” Stoneking said. “It could be our best day yet, it could be the worst day yet, and they could happen within two days of each other.”
Stoneking said she hasn’t thought much about how she’ll view this period historically decades from now. She hasn’t even “thought past December.”
But when that time comes, “I think we’ll talk about resilience and ability to adapt, and working through a problem that’s nonconventional,” she said.
“I think that’s what we’re going to learn from this, is it’ll be all right,” she said. “It’ll be all right. You’ve just got to get through it.”
— Jonathan Gallardo
Innovative lessons ensure that COVID-19 doesn't disrupt STEM education
It’s not an overstatement to say that reopening the schools in Campbell County School District after COVID-19 forced their closure in March was like working a giant puzzle.
The district’s reopening committee met for months devising a plan to safely bring students back into buildings, and that effort required carefully scrutinizing the pieces that make up a school day — entering the building, class changes, lunch and transportation, to name but a few — and considering how they all fit together.
Tracy Ennis, a technology facilitator and STEM teacher at Hillcrest Elementary, faced a particularly daunting challenge upon her return to the classroom.
“In my position, it is all hands-on and collaborative work,” Ennis said. “All teachers made adjustments, but in the (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) lab it was a little more difficult, because that’s the whole premise.
"How do we respect that and still allow the kids to have this rich learning, but also follow our governor’s and public health guidelines?”
She decided to use a literal puzzle to welcome students back to a school year shaped by the coronavirus.
She devised a challenge for her students: in small groups, work together to put together a puzzle. Seems simple enough, but then comes the COVID-19 learning curve: The puzzle must be assembled with each student only touching his or her own pieces.
“It was very hard for them to do because they had to rely on that communication to other partners, like, ‘Hey, I think our pieces match,’” Ennis said. “Then also not just taking someone’s piece and putting it together, they had to work together to slide those pieces together so that they interlocked.”
A student served as the foreperson of the group, policing the assemblers. If the foreperson noticed someone had touched a piece that had been touched by another student, he or she would pause the group’s effort and sanitize the piece.
“It helped them understand why we’re doing this and led them to be more cognizant of when we work in the STEM lab," Ennis said. "We have to be aware of what we’re touching and then cleaning up, or sanitizing, after that."
For Ennis, the first few weeks of the school year have been governed by the maxim that to go fast, one must first go slow. So far, lessons in the STEM lab have been all about setting expectations and ingraining rules and procedures to ensure students remain as safe as possible.
She expects to start working on stations that are aligned with the students’ curricula in the fifth or sixth week of school.
The lesson has served as an anchor point allowing Ennis, and even other teachers, to return to look ahead with education while remaining vigilant against the spread of germs. It’s indicative of creative teaching taking place across the district’s schools, and it’s worked, she said.
“The kids are now holding students accountable,” Ennis said. “They recognize how important it is for all of us to work together.”
— Cary Littlejohn
Gillette woman looks back at life during COVID-19 era
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Donna Bennett would eat lunch and mingle with friends at the Campbell County Senior Center, take occasional road trips and shop at supermarkets.
But when President Donald Trump and Gov. Mark Gordon declared national and state emergencies because of the novel coronavirus in mid-March, Bennett's world started to change rapidly.
“Everything stopped," said the 70-year-old Gillette resident.
Nonessential businesses and schools closed. The Senior Center stopped serving its daily lunches at the center and canceled all activities for members.
For Bennett and other older people who are more at-risk of catching COVID-19, it's been like being trapped in a scene from the “Where is Everybody?” episode of the classic “The Twilight Zone” television program. In that episode, a U.S. Air Force pilot suddenly finds himself alone in an otherwise typical American town.
Even so, Bennett was not ill-prepared for the isolation brought on by the virus. She grew up on a ranch north of Hulett.
“That helped me manage that some because I could remember living like that in the wintertime,” she said. "(Plus) I have a husband, so I wasn't quite alone."
Bennett and her husband Sam have spent more time together over the past 200 days than before. They've spent more time taking walks and working in their garden and yard.
“Our yard looks the best its looked in 10 years,” she said.
Along with household chores, the pandemic prompted the couple to use their cellphones more to communicate with loved ones they couldn't travel to see.
Sam even learned how to text.
“He’s so proud he can text now and if someone texts him, he can answer back,” Donna said.
Because of public health orders and warnings about travel, the Bennetts, who normally are prone to making random road trips to places like Yellowstone National Park, have limited their "travel" to local car rides.
“We realized that there’s been a lot of changes since we were out there the last time so that was kind of fun,” Donna said.
The Bennetts did venture out to Keyhole State Park “to see how much water is in the lake," she said.
Bennett said COVID-19 has affected other aspects of her life, like grocery shopping and attending church services.
Because she's in the at-risk category for contracting the virus, Donna said she has to consider her own safety going out in public more than before.
“I don’t like to go shopping because no one wears masks, and I think it does help,” she said.
Instead, she plans her shopping for times when it is less crowded because she does not like to do online shopping.
“I never used to think about that," she said. "Now we plan shopping trips like major events.”
Bennett still is amazed by the toilet paper hoarding that hit at the beginning of the pandemic and the world's sudden interest in cleanliness.
“How we used to do things wasn’t very sanitary,” she said, adding that she has never washed so much in her life as she has in the past six months.
“I can’t even tell you how many jars of liquid soap I have in my house, plus some bars of soap,” Bennett said.
As a spiritual person, attending church services online via Zoom just wasn't the same, she said.
"I didn't like it in the sense we could not be there," Bennett said. "I like being around the people. (But) it was OK because I can still get the spiritual messages I need."
A look ahead
When the Senior Center began serving daily lunches again, it was a godsend for the Bennetts.
"We're glad the Senior Center started serving lunch inside its building again. We saw three or four people we haven't seen in a long time," she said during a meal this week.
Despite some sense of normalcy returning with her ability to have lunch with her friends again — albeit still following social distancing guidelines — the future remains fluid for older people like the Bennetts.
And in Gillette, looking out for herself seems to also come with some public ridicule from others who buck against public health measures.
“It’s what you don’t know that easily frightens me,” she said. “I don’t want to get (COVID-19) because it sounds horrible. So I’m trying my best not to get it, and that means staying home and wearing my mask even when people say rude things to me and stare at me.
“I don’t appreciate that. I’m just doing the best I can. I guess they are doing the best they can too, but if your best means making other people feel bad, that’s not a good thing.”
After 200 days of dramatic lifestyle changes, Bennett said she is cautiously optimistic for the future.
"I think that we will overcome this at some point. They will figure something out," she said about the pandemic. "But it's going to be a hard road in between that time."
— Gregory Hasman
Centner leads jail medical staff through pandemic protocols
Julie Centner and her medical team have been wearing pink plastic gloves for the past few months.
Traditionally, their protective gear has been a less vibrant surgical blue color, but that changed along with many other details of day-to-day life when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a state emergency in Wyoming nearly 200 days ago.
Centner is the health services manager at the Campbell County jail, which means she is in charge of health care for inmates.
She feared running short on supplies, so early on tried to stock up on what she could, when she could. Throughout the country, supplies and personal protective equipment have been difficult to find.
Finding supplies in March, April and May was particularly challenging, she said. When her supplier ran out of the blue gloves she normally stocks, pink was all she could find. Her staff has grown to like them.
Although there were concerns of supply shortages and uncertainty as to how the pandemic would play out, the virus itself never was something Centner and her medical team at the jail feared.
Treating people and preventing illness is "second nature for nurses,” Centner said. “We’re used to it. None of us were really fearful."
The length of stay for inmates can vary widely. Some are locked up for hours and others for months. The condition they arrive in is just as variable. She said it is not uncommon for someone to arrive with drug and alcohol-related health issues, which can be a source of health problems in any circumstance, but presents another layer of vulnerability when it comes to contracting illnesses like COVID-19.
In March, the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office was quick to implement a new protocol to protect inmates and staff from contracting and spreading the virus.
First, deputies screen potential inmates for flu-like symptoms and take their temperature while making an arrest in the field. Then, once being processed at the jail, another deputy would screen them again. Any red flags or abnormalities result in a nurse being called in to further assess the inmate.
If the signs of illness persist or suggest the possibility of being COVID-19, Centner and her staff monitor the inmate in quarantine. Since March, fewer than 10 inmates at the county jail have had to be quarantined.
No inmates have tested positive for the virus.
“There was this fear that there would be this epidemic in the jails,” Centner said.
That did not prove true in Campbell County. Although the jail population now hovers around 160 people, that number was dropped to about 120-130 during the earlier stages of the pandemic as a precaution, she said.
But the added protective measures have come at a personal cost for Centner and her team. For three months straight, she was on the clock.
“I didn’t have any time off,” Center said. “We all just worked.”
The hours she spent away form the jail were spent on-call, just a ring away from being called back to duty.
Her hard work, not just during the pandemic but throughout her health care career, was recently rewarded when she received the Outstanding Healthcare Provider award from the Campbell County Healthcare Foundation.
Now nearly 200 days into the pandemic, it's unclear how long they'll have to continue to be hyper-vigilant. But for now, the pink gloves remain part of the deal.
“You can’t predict, you just have to prepare.” Centner said.
— Jake Goodrick
Almost a year after buying and reopening the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines in Campbell County, Eagle Specialty Materials hasn’t secured federal leases for the operations.
ESM and the U.S. Department of the Interior have been negotiating for months to resolve more than $50 million in unpaid federal royalties owed by bankrupt Blackjewel LLC.
Blackjewel and Contura Energy sold the Wyoming mines to ESM as part of a messy bankruptcy last year that involved shuttering the mines for more than three months.
Until there’s an agreement on satisfying the unpaid royalties, ESM will continue to operate the mines without owning the leases and at the discretion of the Interior Department, something outlined in a recent court order extending the negotiating deadline from the end of September through Dec. 31.
Although ESM is solely responsible for all federal royalty payments since taking over operations of the Powder River Basin mines Oct. 18, the fly in the ointment is how $50.1 million in royalties left unpaid by Blackjewel will be satisfied, said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming.
“The problem here isn’t that ESM is behind on its current payments,” he said. “What you’re looking at is a really tough political bargain.”
That’s because the Interior Department is charged with collecting any money owed and protecting public assets, in this case the value of the federal leases, Godby said. To that end, it can’t set a precedent of forgiving any or all of the unpaid royalties. The agency also doesn’t want to come down so hard on ESM that it shuts the mines down and stops all the current payments the company is making.
“It’s a balancing act with long-term and short-term trade-offs,” Godby said. “If they push too hard, they might push them out of business, because clearly, if ESM had the money they would’ve paid it by now.”
Eagle Specialty Materials is a privately held company based in Ohio owned by Michael Costello. Because it’s not a public company, there are no financial reports or filings to show just how solid or tenuous ESM’s finances are.
Because of that, Godby said analysts can only speculate about why an agreement hasn’t yet been reached.
“This is pure speculation, but what (ESM) is looking for is probably a payment plan,” he said. “We can’t know that for certain, because their finances are all private, but the fact that it’s not resolved yet probably means the government is expecting one thing and ESM wants another.
“If they can’t afford it, then the government’s in a really bad situation. If the government were a private creditor, they’d probably have to write it off as bad debt. That’s the problem — they’re not, and because of that they’re between a rock and a hard place.”
The negotiations over federal leases for Eagle Specialty Materials isn’t the only pressure facing ESM’s owner. Costello also owns Alabama-based FM Coal LLC, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization Sept. 1.
FM Coal owns 21 mines in Alabama, of which five are active producing coking and thermal coal and employ 153 people. Another 12 mines are in reclamation with four more idle properties.
With $56 million in liabilities, dramatically falling production and mounting maintenance obligations, the company is upside down financially, according to its filing in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division.
Costello owned 50% of the company until the separation of former chief operating officer Freddy Hunt, who owned the other 50% until his separation from FM Coal in July 2019, giving sole ownership to Costello, according to the bankruptcy filing. Less than three months later, Costello formed Eagle Specialty Materials to acquire the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines.
Blackjewel got the mines from Contura Energy Inc. in December 2017 in a deal where no money changed hands, but Blackjewel assumed the debt associated with the mines from Contura. Less than two years later, Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, which ultimately resulted in Contura, which was still on the hook for about $230 million in reclamation, buying the mines back.
Ultimately, instead of operating the PRB mines, Contura paid ESM $90 million to assume the reclamation obligations.
To secure ownership of the mines, ESM also agreed to pay Blackjewel $16.2 million in cash, pay $32 million to Blackjewel’s senior creditors, make good on any unpaid bills incurred during the bankruptcy up to $4.3 million and pay any unpaid wages and benefits owed to Blackjewel’s Wyoming employees.
Under the terms of the sale, ESM technically is mining as a contractor for Contura until it can secure transfers of state and federal permits and leases in its name.
A message to Costello regarding ESM’s negotiations for the federal leases wasn’t responded to by press time.
Complicating the situation is a continued downslide in production and the value of thermal coal from the Powder River Basin, Godby said.
“The fed is trying to make sure the public gets value out of this public resource, so to fulfill that obligation, they have to pursue unpaid royalties,” he said. “But in the long term, if they undermine the asset they could stop the ongoing payment of (current and future) royalties.”
Coming down hard on ESM to the point of putting it out of business “definitely undermines the value of this public asset. Once you do that, the potential for payment goes down, if not disappears.”
Also, the value of the leases is much less than when they were first issued, Godby said.
Overall, PRB coal production is down about 25% through the first half of 2020 compared to 2019. For the ESM mines, Eagle Butte was down about the same amount in the second quarter of this year and Belle Ayr about 39%.
Coal also has plummeted as a source for power generation in the United States, accounting for just 14% of domestic electricity in the second quarter, whereas a decade ago coal held 50% of the market.
Because of that, it’s likely ESM would need to pay off the $50 million over a period of time much longer than the federal government is willing to agree to, Godby said.
“The value of the public asset is much lower than it used to be,” he said. “But the liabilities have not been written down accordingly. If this was a private company and its creditors, a creditor would take a haircut because the value of the asset is not what it once was.”
A prime example is the recent decision by Peabody Energy Corp. to write down the value of the North Antelope Rochelle mine in southern Campbell County by more than $1.4 billion, Godby said. That’s an admission by the company that because of the weak market and pricing for PRB coal, and the unlikelihood of a turnaround, the asset simply isn’t worth what it once was.
“The problem here is the shareholders are the public” and not ESM or company investors, he said. “If (the government) gave them more time to pay this off, then they’ve written down the value of the asset.
“It’s like if you have a $100 debt. Repayment of that at $10 a year over 10 years is worth less than paying me $100 now. If the government works with ESM to create a payment plan, they run the risk of reducing the asset value that’s owed to the people of the United States.”
It also risks opening a floodgate for other coal companies to want to pay off their lease agreements over longer periods of time, he said.
The Interior Department’s willingness to continue negotiations with ESM can be interpreted a couple of ways, Godby said. One is that it’s a good sign there isn’t an impasse and both sides anticipate being able to eventually work something out.
Another is political.
“The last thing the Trump administration wants is to put a coal mine out of business a month and a half before the election,” Godby said.
In the end, the most likely explanation is the most simple: ESM would pay if it had the money, but it doesn’t.
“What this (continuing negotiation) tells us is that the same owner of FM, which is in bankruptcy, and ESM does not have deep enough pockets to pay this off,” Godby said.
In its Chapter 11 filing in Alabama, FM Coal cites “dramatic decreases in sales volume” from about 1.4 million tons in 2017 to 949,330 tons in 2019. So far in 2020, the company is on pace to produce about 622,000 tons.
Because of that reduced production and revenue, “the single greatest challenge faced by (the company) is the state of their equipment fleet,” the bankruptcy filing says.
While FM Coal and ESM are separate companies, the Alabama case is worth keeping an eye on, Godby said.
“FM went bankrupt (there) because it couldn’t keep up with required maintenance and reinvestment,” he said. “ESM may eventually find itself in the same situation. If it then files bankruptcy, what happens to that $50 million owed in the first place?”