Covid Country Diary

Covid Country Diary

We left Manhattan for the Catskills in March; two months into the city’s lockdown, this rural county had the highest per capita number of new cases in the state.

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Sullivan County, N.Y.—It’s a myth that people in small-town America know one another. I’ve had a cabin in this place for 30 years and never knew that a foie gras factory sits high above Ferndale, a hamlet I’ve driven through hundreds of times. I found out one sunny Sunday this spring, when 40 flag-festooned cars filed up to La Belle Farm past blooming forsythia and a white-picket-fenced farmhouse, part of an appreciation drive for farm and factory workers.

The drive kicked off at Murray’s Chickens, a packing plant 15 minutes away in South Fallsburg, and weaved through a housing project where workers and their kids smiled and waved, sprawling out onto concrete stoops in the spring warmth as we honked our horns.

No one waved in Ferndale. Not a soul could be seen. Only row after row of workers’ trailers, exposed on a hilltop, perpendicular to an enormous, low, windowless barn. When New York City banned the sale of foie gras, a few years ago, no one stopped this place or nearby Hudson Valley Foie Gras from force-feeding and slaughtering enough ducks, ducklings, and geese to make these the nation’s premier producers of the sickening pâté. Who knew?

We left Manhattan and drove up here in March. A pocket of hanging-on farms, scrubby woods, and defunct hotels, Sullivan Valley is neither Hudson Valley rich nor Delaware Valley airy. From its heyday as the Catskills’ famous Borscht Belt in the 1950s, it is home now to 75,000 souls in winter. Social distance comes with the territory. As the snow fell late and wet, and lines at the supermarket got better organized, it was possible to imagine that nothing new was coming, not spring or Covid-19.

The novel coronavirus came quietly to the country, prowling the backroads of poor health, poor health care, lack of attention and clout. Facts took time to come into focus, as inconspicuous places with tucked-away poultry plants started showing up in county statistics, followed by obscure villages fronting off-road meat packers and down-by-the river dairy processors.

By late April, people were realizing that, just like the city, their patch of country was powered by a pool of poorly paid, poorly documented, mostly Latinx and Black workers. Some were dead, and more were falling sick.

Thirty-eight-year-old Luz (not her real name) worked in a cold, crowded factory wrapping luncheon meat around cheese sticks for sale at deli counters around the country. Twenty-five workers toiled bunched up at three tables, and ate together at mealtimes. She learned about the virus through the Internet, then on Facebook, and didn’t believe it posed a threat here. All spring, Luz kept working. Still, she’d undress as soon as she returned home and shower before greeting her children.

“She went nowhere, just from her job to home; home to Walmart or ShopRite to get what we needed; then home again,” explained teenage Marisol, speaking on Zoom from the home her mother forbade her to leave.

Then a coworker died. Luz left work that day and hasn’t been back: “How could they do such a thing, to not tell us what’s happening?”

Two months into the lockdown in Manhattan, Sullivan County had the highest positive test rate, and the most new cases per capita, in New York State.

The county’s public health director, Nancy McGraw, raised concerns about farm and factory workers at her weekly briefings, which were face-timed on a press officer’s cell phone. Local media picked up the story, and with bad broadband and little elbow room, activists got busy.

By early May, Rotary clubs were delivering food to essential workers, piling station wagons full of Monticello’s famous bagels in the morning and cooked meals from grateful restaurants at night. At the entrance to the senior care center in Liberty, nurses put on superhero costumes to greet a rain-drenched solidarity drive-by. Nurses thanking drivers, drivers thanking nurses, everyone getting wet.

Meanwhile, Juanita Sarmiento and members of the Rural and Migrant Ministry set up signs at the entrance to Murray’s Chickens: FREE MASKS. Across from the bank and the kosher butchers, they handed out boxloads of protective masks to blue-apron-clad workers at shift change.

“We could have seen it coming. I saw it coming,” says Sarmiento, a former biology student.

“What’s coming into its own is new leadership,” purrs Sandy Oxford through a red chili-pepper face mask. Director of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, Oxford joined Sarmiento at Murray’s one Friday to support workers and berate the bosses: “If the workers have all the masks they need, why are they rushing over here to get more?”

Crowds rallied for Black lives in June: half a dozen on the bridge in Narrowsburg; several hundred in Monticello, demanding release of prisoners from the town’s ancient jail.

In Roscoe, at the foot of Catskill State Park, the Black Lives Matter rally took place on Railway Avenue, a broad, empty block, home of the Trout Town Inn.

Organizer Ashlee Perez straddled a wooden ranch fence to be seen. “Yes, we have racism here in Roscoe,” she told the mostly white, mostly young group of protesters. Along with half a dozen other African Americans, she told her neighbors about their town—about school bullies, bureaucratic bigots, absurd arrests, and too-many-to-count traffic stops, about silence and threats.

The group clustered around two vintage train carriages, a perky red caboose, and a long, sea green “trout car,” reminders of the railway platform that once occupied this block. One hundred years ago, people in long dresses and high hats, mostly white, mostly Christian, would spill off the trains of the O & W line, drawn by Roscoe’s fish and fresh air. Only the train cars and the trout remain.

The future will look different, says Perez. Demographics demand it. “But right now, people like me aren’t going to want to stay here.” Waving her arms for balance, Perez seemed to gesture down the invisible tracks. “This place is going to have to change.”

I have seen every day of spring and summer here for the first time. I’ve discovered that those trout, millions of them, were city transplants, shipped from Long Island hatcheries in the 1880s and ’90s. They rode the rails as people did. From the crowded city, many people came with tuberculosis, seeking fresh air, a cure, relief.

For 30 years, Sullivan County boomed. That was its Silver Age. It ended in the 1920s, when people began to understand that human contact could spread disease.

One red hot Saturday in July, strolling down a long former track, now a wheelchair-accessible walkway, with county historian John Conway, I learned more. TB killed the passenger trains, an entire network of spidery rail lines that had brought generations of city-dwellers north. But TB also brought a Jewish immigrant and his family here, seeking escape from city smog and anti-Semitism. The Grossingers bought a failing farm at a bargain price and helped usher in Sullivan County’s next big boom, its Golden Age. Grossingers Catskill Resort Hotel had 35-buildings, its own airport, and a post office until it closed, in 1986.

What’s coming next? Connection or contagion? Coming together or coming apart? History surprises, but it doesn’t predict.


Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.

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