Why Parts Of Rural America Are Pushing Back On Coronavirus Restrictions

May 27, 2020
Originally published on May 28, 2020 10:30 am

A county judge in Oregon has refused to vacate his ruling rejecting that state's stay-at-home order, though Gov. Kate Brown's restrictions will remain in place pending a review by the Oregon Supreme Court.

The case is one of several challenges launched recently by conservatives in mostly rural areas from Illinois to Wisconsin to Oregon. They've upended or threatened to upend statewide public health restrictions in place to curb coronavirus infections. They also appear to be bringing the divide between urban and rural areas into sharper focus.

For instance, Baker County, from where Oregon's most recent challenge stemmed, has one confirmed COVID-19 case.

"We have no vile threat that it's going to be expanding around here, so why in God's name are you still holding us to restrictions?" asked Bill Harvey, chair of the Baker County Commission.

Harvey, a Republican, signed onto his state's most recent lawsuit that was originally brought by Oregon churches, including Elkhorn Baptist in Baker City. The judge ruled last week that under state law, the governor must consult the Legislature before extending her emergency restrictions beyond 28 days.

The statewide order is back in place for now pending an appeal.

"You don't have the threats you would have in a major city," Harvey said. "You can't judge or control our atmosphere based on what you think the Portland area should be."

Baker County, Ore., Commissioner Mark Bennett had a cousin from the East Coast who died from the coronavirus.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

"A rural versus urban issue"

Baker County, with a population of about 17,000, is some 300 miles east of the liberal-leaning Portland metro area. Along the old Oregon Trail, tourism is big here. So is cattle ranching. Both have been hammered economically by the shutdown. Summer rodeos, fishing tournaments and fairs are canceled, among other things.

"This has become a rural versus urban issue," said Kathy Cramer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist.

Cramer recently wrote a book called The Politics of Resentment, focusing on her state's urban-rural divide. Cramer said there's general mistrust toward government regulations in rural America. And now coronavirus restrictions are being written that look to some like they were crafted only with city folks in mind.

"The idea that the government is not attentive enough to the actual challenges of rural communities is not new," Cramer said. "The pandemic seems to have deepened some of the resentment that's been there for a long time."

Oregon's urban-rural divide has long been tense. In eastern Oregon these days, it's not uncommon to see a big Trump 2020 banner on the back of a pickup or even Confederate flags flying in yards. Conservative state lawmakers recently made headlines for retreating to Idaho to avoid voting on climate change legislation. In Baker City, you still hear anger over a timber mill that shuttered more than a decade ago, in part as a result of a steep decline in logging on federal land.

Kayla Keith, who works at a cafe, wasn't too surprised one recent day when she was pumping gas at a Maverick station and got grief from a neighbor for wearing a mask.

Keith lives with her elderly parents — her mom is diabetic and dad has lung issues.

"If they caught this, I don't like their odds," Keith said. "I wear a mask for the obvious reasons; you want to protect everybody else."

In a divided country, in a divided town even, something as small as wearing a mask can mark you on one side or the other: red versus blue, pro-science versus anti-science; you're taking the virus seriously or you think it's overblown.

"We only have one person who's been affected by the virus in Baker County, and you can't tell us we have to live under the same restrictions as a city. That's ridiculous," said Harvey, the commission chair.

Still, in Baker City, you see plenty of folks wearing masks in grocery stores and other places.

At the old stone courthouse, Republican County Commissioner Mark Bennett, the county's incident commander for the pandemic, said it's a misnomer that people in rural places aren't taking the virus seriously because they don't know many who have been affected.

It turns out a cousin of Bennett's from back East died from it.

"Part of it is, I have to admit, she didn't take medical services," he said. "She just thought she could tough it out, and by then it was too late."

Jenny Mowe, owner of Sweet Wife Baking in Baker City, decided to stay open and offer takeout and other services during the pandemic.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

"We should be acting as a collective"

Bennett led a proposal to begin reopening the county that the governor recently approved despite the lawsuit against the statewide restrictions. They added almost 50 hospital beds and hired more than the required number of contact tracers. Bennett said social distancing is mostly a way of life here anyway.

"I have a 52-mile commute every day. I think I passed one car," he chuckles.

Officials such as Bennett downplayed the rural-urban fights in the news media.

A few businesses in town have been able to stay open since March, and many more are now beginning to reopen. But just like everywhere else in the country, these are tough times.

Jenny Mowe, owner of Sweet Wife Baking, cleared out her cafe to create a contact-free ordering area. Many of her employees were furloughed, and most of her contracts with area restaurants were canceled.

Talking through her mask, Mowe said she is turned off by all the political fights. It's stressful enough trying to survive and adapt her business right now.

"I think when you get such a divisive message from leadership, that really hurts something like this," said Mowe, a former professional women's basketball player and University of Oregon star. "We should be acting as a collective and [saying] this is what we're doing as a country to get through this."

For now, Mowe is just trying to get through the week and keep her doors open, let alone the next few months.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How you feel about stay-at-home orders depends on where you live in your state. And the urban-rural divide comes with litigation. There's been an ongoing legal fight over Oregon's stay-at-home order. Wisconsin's high court threw out its statewide orders after rural lawmakers sued to end them. And now there's a lawsuit pending in Illinois. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Parts of eastern Oregon lean pretty far to the right. These days, it's not uncommon to see a big Trump 2020 banner on the back of a pickup or even Confederate flags flying in yards. So Kayla Keith, who works in Baker City, wasn't too surprised when she was pumping gas the other day and got grief for wearing a mask.

KAYLA KEITH: Very rude and he was just making out like it wasn't something anybody needed to be concerned about. And I didn't say anything back to him, of course, because those people, you can't talk to.

SIEGLER: Keith, in her 20s, lives with her elderly parents. Mom is diabetic and Dad has lung issues.

KEITH: If they caught this, I don't like their odds. I wear a mask for the obvious reasons. You want to protect everybody else.

SIEGLER: But in a divided country, a divided town, something as small as wearing a mask can mark you on one side or the other - red versus blue, pro-science, anti-science, you're taking the virus seriously or you think it's being overblown.

BILL HARVEY: These things are not helping by making people so afraid that they have to wear a mask even in their own homes for crying out loud.

SIEGLER: Bill Harvey is the chair of the Baker County Commission. A judge here recently rejected Oregon's stay-at-home order, which did not require anyone to wear masks in their homes. The judge did rule that Governor Kate Brown must consult the legislature before extending her emergency restrictions. The statewide order is back in place for now pending an appeal. Commissioner Harvey, though, a Republican, signed on to that lawsuit, which was originally brought by Oregon churches, including Elkhorn Baptist here in town.

HARVEY: You cannot judge or control our atmosphere around here or our community based on what you think Portland area should be. It does not work.

SIEGLER: Baker County, population 17,000, is 300 miles east of liberal Portland along the old Oregon Trail. Tourism is big here, so is cattle ranching. Both have been hammered by the shutdown. And Baker County has only had one confirmed COVID-19 case compared to more than 1,000 in the Portland area.

HARVEY: We have no vile threat that's going to be expanding around here. So why in God's name are you still holding us to restrictions?

KATHY CRAMER: This has become a rural versus urban issue.

SIEGLER: Kathy Cramer at the University of Wisconsin wrote a book called "The Politics Of Resentment." She says there's general mistrust toward government regulations in rural America, and now coronavirus restrictions are being written that look to some like they were crafted only with city people in mind.

CRAMER: The idea that government is not attentive enough to the actual challenges of rural communities is not new. And the pandemic seems to have deepened some of the resentment that's been there for a long time.

SIEGLER: Oregon's urban-rural divide has long been tense. Conservative legislators recently made headlines for retreating to Idaho to avoid voting on climate change legislation. Around town, there are the conspiracy theorists, the trucks with the Ore-gun bumper stickers decrying liberals, but you also see plenty of folks walking into the Albertson's or the Safeway wearing masks. At the old stone courthouse, Republican County Commissioner Mark Bennett told me. It's a misnomer that people in rural areas aren't taking the virus seriously because they don't know many people affected. Turns out, his cousin on the East Coast died from it.

MARK BENNETT: Part of it is, I have to admit, she didn't take medical services. She just thought she could tough it out. And by then, it was too late.

SIEGLER: Bennett is Baker County's incident commander for the pandemic. He led a proposal to begin reopening the county that the governor recently approved despite the lawsuit against the statewide restrictions. They added almost 50 hospital beds and hired more than the required contact tracers. And Bennett says social distancing is mostly a way of life out here.

BENNETT: I am a 52-mile commute every day. I think I passed one car.

SIEGLER: Officials like Bennett actually downplayed the rural-urban fights in the news media. A lot of businesses in town are opening back up, though just like everywhere else, these are tough times. Jenny Mowe at Sweet Wife Bakery cleared out her cafe to create a contact-free ordering area.

JENNY MOWE: So usually we have one, two, three, four, five tables in here.

SIEGLER: Talking through her mask, Mowe says she's turned off by all the political fights. It's stressful enough trying to survive and adapt her business right now.

MOWE: I think when you get such a divisive message from leadership, I think that really hurts something like this where we should be kind of acting as a collective and, hey, this is what we're doing as a country to get through this.

SIEGLER: For now, Mowe is just trying to get through the week and keep her doors open, let alone the next few months. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Baker City, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.