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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Two Shots And A Beer: Montana Businesses Offer Vaccine Incentives

A beer and a shot of alcohol on a bar.

A shot and a beer has taken on a new meaning during the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses in Montana are trying to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19 by offering free beer, doughnuts and other incentives in what they call an effort to get life back to normal.

Businesses can play an important role in gaining people’s confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine.

Laine Bonstein takes a seat at the bar at Draught Works Brewery in Missoula. She’s one of two people here taking advantage of a free pint for getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

She’d just gotten her first dose of the vaccine that morning and was surprised to get a free beer. She says the Draught Works promotion is a representation of Missoula’s efforts to get more people vaccinated. 

“And so, anything they do to further build up that is not surprising.”

As vaccine rates drop across the state and country, businesses are doing what they can to nudge people who might be on the fence to get vaccinated and reach community protection.

In Missoula, businesses are donating prizes for the county to raffle off at vaccine clinics. In Yellowstone County, an unnamed person donated $50 each to the first 400 people to get a shot Thursday. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes teamed up with S&K Gaming to raffle cash and gift cards.

Draught Works Brewery co-owner Jeff Grant says about 25 people a day took advantage of the free beer in April. He says it worked as a way to get people inside his business and promote getting the vaccine.

“It’s our livelihood, so it’s important that we can dig out of this hole quickly. And the vaccination is the best tool to do that.”

Dr. Sophia Newcomer is an assistant professor with the school of public and community health sciences at the University of Montana. She says there’s limited evidence whether businesses offering incentives to get vaccines are successful, but she thinks they do play a role by showing support in the vaccines.

“They want their employees and people who come to their businesses to be vaccinated. And they want to have a really positive environment around vaccination, which I think is great.”

She says businesses can play another important role by giving employees time to get and recover from the vaccine — “making it as easy as possible for someone to get a vaccine.”

Robert Rivers is part owner of Imagine Nation Brewing with his wife and says the business isn’t handing out free beers because many parts of the world don’t have access to the vaccine.

“If we are so lucky to be able to have access to this vaccine, why do we need something on top of that?”

Recently, a close friend of Rivers’ in Brazil lost a battle with COVID-19. Rivers says his friend, who he described as “Brazil on two legs,” had been in a coma during that time and fought as hard as he could.

He says the business believes in the vaccine and wanted to do something creative — something beyond beer. Rivers says he’d rather host a pop-up clinic, where people can just get it.

“I feel like, in a way, that is making a bigger impact on the greater whole than just a free beer for someone who gets vaccinated.”

In the parking lot of Imagine Nation Brewing, healthcare workers registered people for the Johnson & Johnson shot on. Before the clinic was set up, a line had formed. Cars packed the brewery’s parking lot, forcing some to park along Broadway Street. 

Cindy Farr is the incident commander for the Missoula County Health Department’s response to COVID-19. She says the health department is partnering up with businesses to offer more pop-up vaccine clinics where people live, work and play. 

“We’re trying to make it really easy and convenient for people to get that vaccine.”

At Imagine Nation Brewing’s pop-up clinic, the county added 69 people to its list of inoculated. 

More pop-up clinics at businesses are likely to follow in places like Frenchtown, Lolo and Seeley Lake. This week, the county takes its mobile vaccine clinic to Winco.

Jeb Cowan, who’s wearing a cowboy hat made from recycled Pabst Blue Ribbon beer boxes, got one of the doses administered at Imagine Nation. He liked getting the vaccine at the brewery instead of in a hospital, where he says he’s afraid of catching something else.

“This made it absolutely fun. We get to be creative; it’s less physical on the body because we get to be where we want to be.”

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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