As Virus Invades Rural America, the Politics are Beginning to Scramble

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

On Friday, The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein published the latest of several attempts to parse the political effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. His conclusion: the pandemic is deepening the faultline between liberal urbanites and increasingly Democratic-leaning suburbanites on one side and residents of rural and smaller metropolitan areas on the other.

Survey data seem to confirm that: A Quinnipac University poll last month found that just 37 percent of city dwellers and 44 percent of suburbanites approved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, but 63 percent of rural voters did–almost exactly the share who voted for him in 2016. A similar split showed up in how serious a threat the three voter cohorts took the pandemic to be. 

Small wonder then that Trump has doubled down on the divide-and-conquer strategy that, with help from the Electoral College, third-party spoilers, and Russian pixie dust, won him a narrow victory in 2016. But, Brownstein concludes, this deepening division “could put Trump in a difficult position. It could force him to generate even bigger margins in small communities to offset a potentially weaker performance than last time in the largest ones.”

There seems little doubt that Trump’s especially peevish, erratic, and ineffective performance in the last two months has further alienated many urban and suburban voters. But will it, as Brownstein says Trump needs to do, shore up his support on the other side of the divide–in particular, win over enough of the third of rural voters who went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to offset other losses?

Maybe not. My reporting for a story in Politico Magazine last week suggests that the virus’s impacts on rural America, and rural Americans’ reaction to it, are still open questions. The gap between urban and rural impacts has been narrowing as the epidemic ripples out from the cities like Seattle and New York where it hit early and hard. And the gap between urban and rural attitudes may start to narrow too. 

From Skagit County in the state’s northwest corner to Columbia County in the far southeast, hospital administrators, emergency managers and other officials were taking the pandemic very seriously, figuring it was just a matter of time before their limited medical resources were besieged by it as well. Skagit is already feeling the blow; it’s seen 230 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with six deaths and the state’s fifth-highest infection rate. 

Skagit County is used to dealing with disaster, in the form of crippling floods. But “floods and other disasters are immediate,” says Bryan Brice, the fire chief in Mount Vernon and incident commander for the county’s COVID-19 response. “With this pandemic, three people get sick, I treat those three and four more are. You treat those four and have five or six more. …. A flood or other disaster is localized. When you have a flood in Skagit County, there’s no flood in Vancouver so you can turn there for help. But this is everywhere.”

By early April, The New York Times found, coronavirus cases were multiplying as fast or faster in rural America as in such urban hot spots as Chicago, Miami, Boston, and New York City. That was of course starting from a much lower base, reflecting the lag time in the onset of contagion. But laggards can swiftly, and vastly, surpass the early adopters. Last month, remember, Seattle was still the acknowledged epicenter of the epidemic, with more known cases than New York. 

The epidemic is still diffusing through the country. All but two of the counties in wide-open Wyoming, the least populous state, have confirmed cases. All of Indiana’s, Alabama’s, South Carolina’s, and Arizona’s counties and all but one of Washington’s do. Washington’s highest COVID-19 rate is not in King or Snohomish but in Yakima County–technically a small metropolitan rather than rural area but highly agricultural in economy and character.

Contagion hotspots are popping up not just in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado ski towns with their transient jet set populations but in Arizona’s Indian Country and southwestern Georgia’s black belt. In both those states, rural and small-town rates of infection exceed those in larger cities. As it happens, they’re both emerging battleground states with large minority populations, which doesn’t bode well for Trump’s double-down strategy.

Image: Wikimedia

Four small counties around Albany, Georgia vie with metro New York as the nation’s most heavily impacted region; their infection rates exceed that of New York City itself. Smug denialists may dismiss that local epidemic as strictly, well, local (not to mention mostly black). It’s been blamed in large part on a funeral gathering in late February, but the Procter & Gamble plant in Albany, working overtime to crank out Charmin, is also a potential vector, though the company says it’s followed separation guidelines. (There may be blood on that toilet paper you’re hoarding.)

But such denials discount the importance of community gatherings in small towns and farm country. I saw this growing up in a town of 1,500 in central Michigan, where life revolved around bake sales, square dances, high school football games, church services, and the rickety amusement park by Lake Lansing.

It’s one thing to close restaurants, bars, and concerts; we pampered urbanites can switch to take-out, Zoom happy hours, and endless cultural and entertainment online. It’s another to ban a community’s essential rituals. “Our funerals are not one or two days,” Tulalip Tribes chairwoman Teri Gobin told me two weeks ago. “They go on for a week. We’re there for the family all week.” When a beloved elder died of COVID-19,  “we could not do that. The family couldn’t be there at the cemetery when they put her in the ground. They had to do it with the nurse putting them on FaceTime.”

Like Albany with its P&G plant, many small cities and rural areas depend on a single large employer such as an agricultural processor, assembly plant or Amazon warehouse where ensuring against transmission is impossible and SARS-Cov-2, once it gets in, can run riot. So it did at the recently closed Smithfield Foods ham plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the vector for 642 infections reported by Smithfield (and counting). The New York Times has tracked 500 more cases in Sioux Falls’s county, Minnehaha, whose infection rate is nearly triple King County’s and about five times those of San Francisco and Los Angeles counties. 

Minnehaha’s cases are doubling every 5.5 days, three to four times faster than the California cities’ and vastly faster than cases in King and Snohomish counties, where the American epidemic began but has now slowed to a crawl. South Dakota, one of five heartland states that has neither imposed nor allowed cities or counties to impose restrictions on movement or business, now has the fastest growth in cases of all the states.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (Wikimedia)

All this comes in the two-and-a-half weeks since its governor, Kristi Noam, defended her decision to leave South Dakotans “free to exercise their rights to work, to worship, and to play” by saying, “South Dakota is not New York City, and our sense of personal responsibility, our resiliency and our already sparse population density put us in a great position to manage this virus” without the “draconian” measures taken elsewhere.

Low density certainly does provide a buffer against contagion, and some isolated corners of the country will likely escape COVID-19, just as pockets of Europe escaped the Black Death in the mid-14th century. But many aspects of rural life make residents more vulnerable to the epidemic’s effects once it reaches them.

Rural residents tend to be older, less affluent and less healthy than the national average, and fewer of them have health insurance. Long distances to hospitals and labs can spell the difference between life and death with an unpredictable disease that can rapidly turn critical. Rural grocery stores, pharmacies and even hospitals are last in line for supplies that chains and bigbox stores have special access to. 

Carrie Henning-Smith, a professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota who studies aging and isolation in rural communities, says that many in the outsize rural elderly population depend on children and other family caregivers who must also work at jobs outside the home. Unlike city-based finance, software, and media jobs that can move online, rural jobs tend to be in industries, many designated “essential,” that require showing up and working at close quarters: agriculture, manufacturing, fishing, mining, retail, tourism and recreation. 

Even before COVID-19 hit, Henning-Smith’s research found that “rural caregivers were dramatically less likely to be able to work at home” than their urban counterparts. “And they had less access to sick leave and time off.” All this makes it harder for them to safely distance themselves and protect their families.

Most worrisome of all, many of the rural hospitals that are the first line of defense as coronavirus goes country were already on the critical list. An average of a dozen a year have folded over the last decade, and many more were on the brink when COVID-19 arrived. Before, if a local disaster or disease outbreak overwhelmed their resources, they could turn to neighbors and big-city medical centers for relief. Now they find themselves competing, at a disadvantage, with their larger counterparts for scarce test kits and protective gear.

Those in more remote areas may also have limited access to information, leaving them exposed to dangerous disinformation. In 2016 the Federal Communications Commission found that 39 percent of rural residents, versus just 10 percent of the general population, lacked access to 25 mps broadband; 200,000 in Washington, by another estimate, were shut out. In such a vacuum, “radio—farm radio, talk radio—becomes really important,” says Henning-Smith. And listening, like social media, has its risks: “They might be getting really bad information. People can think this is a hoax, that it won’t affect them.”

Until it does. In blue-collar Pacific County, a former Democratic stronghold that went for Trump by a 7 percent margin in 2016, the buzz until March 13 was that the coronavirus threat was “being hyped up to make Trump look bad,” says longtime South Bend resident Jan Davis. “That flipped around as soon as Trump declared an emergency. The next day the [town’s only grocery] store was cleared out. It still is. There’s still no toilet paper, baking stuff, rice, beans, or ice cream,” though produce and meat are readily available, Davis told me earlier this month.“It’s a terrible situation. What are poor people [who can’t afford to stock up] going to buy?”

And whom will they and their neighbors vote for in 2020? Long before Trump took the art to a new level, analysts like Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?)  decried the Republicans’ knack for inducing poor and working class whites to vote against their own economic interests by fanning cultural issues and class resentments. Now, by sloughing off responsibility for pandemic policy and blaming Democratic governors for shutdown pain, Trump is trying for a double win: exploiting cultural resentments and economic pain together. 

How will this gambit play out in November? The answer, ironically, depends on a containment campaign that he has done so much to delay and derail.

2 COMMENTS

  1. As someone who also spent most of my youth living in small towns and cities—in Montana and eastern Washington—I have been thinking about this a lot. I’m worried about members of my extended family, young and old, who are trying to manage their lives and protect their health in places where the quarantine regulations are being scoffed at and ignored. As you report, the scenario may play out faster than we have anticipated. Thanks for this story.

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