Coronavirus: two American cities, two very different experiences


State Capitol, Little Rock

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Arkansas has not yet issued a home stay order

After traveling through New York and other cities, Covid-19 is now hitting small towns in different ways. Here is a snapshot of the state of Ohio and Arkansas.

William Knapp, head of a local health council in New London, Ohio, raised the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in Huron County at a meeting in February.

A few days later, he came up with something. “It started with a cough,” says daughter Sheri Gavalya. “This dry cough and hacking. “

Knapp, 79, died of the disease on March 29, adding to the grim state record: 65 deaths from Covid-19.

Ms. Gavalya, a 58-year-old nurse, is now worried about her own health. The same is true of New London, a city with a traffic light in northeastern Ohio. Governor Mike DeWine was one of the first in the country to issue a stay order, which he extended until May 1.

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Courtesy of the Knapp family


William Knapp and Sheri Gavalya

Most stores in New London are closed, making this sleepy city even quieter than usual. The silence, says Mayor Toby Thomas, is “a bit strange”.

In Arkansas, the picture is sobering but not as bad as in Ohio and other states – there have been 625 cases in Arkansas and 10 people have died.

The Governor of Arkansas has decided not to issue a home stay order.

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In Des Arc, a city of 1,800 people in Arkansas, an accountant named Ashley Parchman was busy this spring. More people are filing taxes than usual so that they can receive payment for an economic stimulus package that has been passed by Congress.

She arrives at her office at nine in the morning every morning and the stores are always open.

“Life has to go on,” she says. “I’m just trying to keep it as normal as possible. “

Two small towns with radically different experiences from the pandemic.

More than two months after the start of the crisis in the United States, it is useful to examine how the inhabitants of small towns and villages, a category which includes 30 million people, are confronted with coronavirus. Their lives reflect the larger story of a nation in the midst of a pandemic, with its agitated mix of fear, disease and politics.

Uneven infections

Covid-19’s hotspots are New York, Detroit and other major cities. But small towns across the country are going through their own wave of infection. Medical experts say the disease could be devastating in rural areas – many residents are elderly, living far from hospitals and clinics.

The severity of the epidemic in small towns is determined by a number of factors – cities in sparsely populated states like Arkansas, South Dakota and Wyoming have been only slightly affected, while those in l ‘Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, densely populated areas with large airports and busy highways, are more likely to suffer.

A century ago, people in the United States also saw an uneven pattern of infection.

More than 675,000 people died from the Spanish flu here between 1918 and 2020, but the deaths have not been distributed evenly across the country. “Some communities have been lucky,” said Alex Navarro of the University of Michigan, who is the co-author of a founding book on the 1918 epidemic. Some cities have instituted social distancing or even installed barricades , but some were just lucky.

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An ambulance in St Louis, Missouri, in 1918

The reasons for the disparity between small towns today – with those in Ohio feeling the effects more intensely than those in Arkansas – are still partly due to luck. But the lifestyle of people in small towns is not only determined by geography. Politics also play a role.

Conservative Republican governors in a number of states, including Alabama, Wyoming, and Arkansas, have not issued house orders, while most Democratic governors and some moderate Republicans have. issued one. Ohio governor DeWine, a Republican, was one of the first to adopt a stay-at-home measure.

President Trump recently extended the schedule for his recommendations on social distancing and other measures to contain the virus. Medical experts say these steps will help prevent the spread of the disease.

However, Mr. Trump had previously played down the health crisis and said that the coronavirus was like an ordinary flu.

Conservative governors of Arkansas, North Dakota and several other states underscored his message by choosing not to issue a residence order. Telling people to stay home helps contain the disease, but it wreaks havoc on the state’s economy.

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Courtesy of the Colopy family


A virtual burial took place for Mr. Colopy

The result is two realities – residents of New London and other small towns in Ohio work from home or do not work at all, trying to smooth the curve. In Danville, for example, a virtual funeral was held for farmer James Lee Colopy, 82, who died of heart failure, so that family members were not at risk of infection.

Yet those from another part of the country live in much the same way as before. Des Arc businessman William Calhoun, who works in construction, says he travels less and spends more time with his dogs. But sales remain strong: “It didn’t really affect us. “

A contrasting study

Trains crisscross New London, a city of 2,400 Midwestern residents surrounded by pasture. On a normal spring weekend, locals stop for ice cream on North Main Street and go to church. These days, however, people are crouching down.

Ms. Gavalya, the nurse, was isolated, looking at old photos of her late father and fighting her own “flu symptoms”. Her cough seems to be gone, she says, “I think I’m one of the lucky ones. “

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Thomas family


Walking the dogs is the biggest pleasure of the day, says Sheri Thomas

Nearby, the mayor, Mr. Thomas, 68, and others work from home. During breaks, he and his wife walk, holding hands, with their burrows, Kiko and Hope, describing the outings as their “pleasure of the day”.

Meanwhile, in Des Arc, Arkansas, a state in the southern part of the United States, Ms. Parchman, the accountant, visits her office daily.

A hardware store, belonging to the mayor, James Garth, 63, who also manages the town’s funeral home, is open. A farmer and other city residents say they are going ahead with their plans to build a gravel parking lot; as soon as the rain dries out, they will start cleaning the brush.

Des Arc was named after a bend in the Blanche River, a waterway once filled with steamboats. Local farmers grow rice, the state’s main crop, and hunt deer, squirrels and fish in the lakes.

Most of the city’s businesses, a bank, a used car dealership and restaurants, are open, and the buzz of activity contrasts with the empty offices in New London and other Ohio cities.

So far, only one person in Des Arc has been infected with the virus, said Mayor Garth. The patient was quarantined and quickly rebounded, and residents are proud of their ability to continue.

“Even if the country closes, we are still open for business,” said John Guess, 26, general manager of a dealer, Car City, who works at two locations, one in town and the other in Searcy, 30 miles. a way. “We really haven’t slowed down. “

Many traders in the city have changed the way they run their businesses, but only slightly. Restaurants offer take-out instead of table service, and bank machines direct customers to drive-thru service.

“People are just trying to be as normal as they know they are,” said auto dealer Guess. He adds, only half joking: “They try not to horrify the children. “

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Toby Thomas


One of the measures against coronavirus instituted in New London

Farmer Harvey Joe Sanner, 77, says he has gone through “pretty difficult times” in the past: as a child, he picked up okra until his fingers bleed.

Working in agricultural construction, William Calhoun, 62, remembers bad harvests and drought and says he almost went bankrupt – at least once. They are working hard to make sure that they and the other townspeople are also getting through this bad patch.

“We take it day by day,” says Sanner.

He and other Arkansans can move around freely and find a solution to the disruptions in their daily lives.

Mr. Sanner usually eats breakfast at TJ’s, a local restaurant, and works on a crossword puzzle, for example. On Monday, he picked up an order for sausage patties and went to his mother’s place instead. Gladys, who is 93 and goes through Tootsie, made coffee and they chatted in his kitchen.

This morning was eventful for Mayor Garth, who also made some adjustments to his life. He had a funeral earlier today for an unrelated death.

Then he stopped at the town hall and went to the hardware store. He and his employees now show up every other day, allowing for social distancing, and as a result, they all work harder when they are at the store.

“It makes us a lot busier,” he says.

Those who work in hardware stores still have their jobs – unlike millions of others in other parts of the country, on leave or laid off due to the forced closure of businesses.

And although the governor of Arkansas has not issued a formal order, many of those in Des Arc say they have taken their own measures to keep working and staying safe.

At 31, Ms. Parchman is not in a high-risk category.

She still says that her perspective on the disease has changed: “I first thought it was a political affair.”

These days, she feels uncomfortable. She is still working in her office, taking calls, but otherwise avoiding people, adding, “I keep my door locked.” “

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