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Here in my village in rural New York state, it’s sometimes hard to remember that we are living through a pandemic. If only six cars an hour pass my house near the village center rather than the usual 12, there’s not enough of a difference to notice. If the best the biweekly local paper can do by way of coronavirus news is to report on the death of a woman who grew up here that may have been caused by the virus, that’s a pretty good indication that Covid-19 isn’t exactly running rampant.
Yes, there is higher unemployment here, as everywhere, but in an area where many people work at the local ski resorts in the winter and in lawn care or construction in the summer, layoffs are a fact of life. And yes, working parents’ lives may have become harder than usual, but the small number of ads for babysitters on our community bulletin board suggests that, with the help of extended families (which are the norm here), most of them are coping.
Even the weather seems to reflect the sense that nothing much has changed: Instead of moving on to spring, we’re still experiencing frequent dustings of snow. The red buds on the maple tree outside my office window look exactly as they did a month ago, and if it weren’t for the sight of so many robins, I could easily imagine that we were in early March rather than at the end of April.
I mention all of this because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the very different ways in which urban and rural America are experiencing Covid-19. For the most part, it seems to me, it’s a reflection of the number of serious cases. To date, only five people in our county of about 50,000 have died of the virus, and the hospital that serves us and one other county has just laid off 125 employees because there’s not enough for them to do. Whereas just a month ago the hospital was planning to increase bed capacity by 65 percent to help deal with the crisis, now it’s waiting to be told it can resume elective procedures.
The differences between city and country life during the pandemic extend to government as well. I watch Governor Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus briefing almost every day and hear him talk about the need for more testing and more equipment, and about the meetings he’s convening to coordinate business-reopening strategies. These are weighty matters involving the most knowledgeable scientists and statistical experts in the state.
In contrast, I listened to a call-in town board meeting a few nights ago during which there was hardly a mention of the coronavirus. Instead, there was a lengthy debate about how many parking places a new small business should be required to supply, along with the usual reports by the roads crew and the police department. One member of the all-Republican board proposed some sort of regular e-mail to residents to let them know how the virus was affecting the town, but the other members showed only half-hearted interest and left it to her to try to implement her idea.
So far, everyone around here seems to be accepting pretty much everything that the state has mandated: school closings, social distancing, and a shutdown of all but essential businesses. In large part, I think, that’s because Cuomo, who in his 2018 reelection bid got only half as many votes in this county as his Republican opponent, has proven so effective in convincing people that we have no other choice.
But it’s hard to know what will happen if this goes on for another few weeks. Will there be an upsurge in the currently small number of local Facebook posts objecting to the state’s mandates? Will more and more people start ignoring those directives on the grounds that they don’t really apply to us? Even if Trump continues to bumble the federal government’s response to the crisis, could that mean increased support for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, or might it further convince my neighbors that government at every level is hopelessly incompetent and out of touch?
It’s too soon to make predictions about anything having to do with the virus. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that rural areas like mine don’t suddenly see a jump in infections, and that in the longer-term issues like the need for better rural broadband—which would mean that all kids could participate in online schooling—will finally get the attention they deserve.
For the time being, though, it feels like we’re just bit players, milling around offstage while the main actors push the drama forward.