In their words: How Westerners are weathering the pandemic

From feeling hopeful to anxious to resilient, people across the West offer a look into their communities.

 

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Life has changed immensely in the last month due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has swept across the U.S. As the virus spreads, so too do mitigation efforts: Governors have implemented stay-at-home orders, tribal leaders have set curfews, and millions are unemployed as the economy grinds to a halt under social distancing.

High Country News asked readers to tell us how their own lives have been affected: what they’re observing, how their communities are coming together (or not) and how they’re absorbing the changes. Some are holed up at home with nothing to do, while others are still working as grocery clerks, steel workers and teachers. Here’s a collection of time-stamped snapshots from the past month, edited for clarity and length. If you’d like to share your experience, fill out our tip form.

A grocery store employee in Hotchkiss, Colorado, serves a customer from behind a plexiglass shield.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Ashley Kumburis

Location: Moab, Utah
Age: 27
Occupation: Manager of an outfitter
March 16: Our city officials are in denial about the serious risks that COVID-19 imposes upon our community, trying to maintain a “business as usual” attitude about the situation. Due to the ski resorts closing (and the great weather) Moab has received an influx of guests, mainly spring breakers.

Community members are divided. Our entire local economy depends on the tourist population and is going to be a lot worse when the virus takes hold of this small town. This also poses the question: How will our national parks be managed in the event of a closure? Tourism is not showing any signs of slowing down here. How can we tell people to stay away when they fuel our economy?

“The hospital does not have capacity for the people who live here.

We have a very small hospital with remote and limited resources. There are three ventilators in the hospital, which are primarily used for transporting patients. The hospital does not have capacity for the people who live here. Taking on additional patients who may be injured or sick will be extremely taxing. The people of Moab need to protect themselves, even if that means forcing visitors to stay away.

Susan Hand

Location: Kanab, Utah
Age: 60
Occupation: Retail shop owner
March 17: Fewer people are out and about, but thats hardly unexpected. The hoarding panic began about a week ago. Some events are canceled, but not on as big a scale as would seem appropriate. Social activities are cut way back for some. Others seem less concerned. Im afraid for my colleagues, both in terms of health and financial well-being. Im afraid for my business; prospects for my own retirement look very different than two weeks ago. My husband has a compromised immune system, and I feel so isolated in this little town. I watch the news, but its surreal. I miss my kids, who live far away. Whats it like outside of Kanab? And who knew I touched my face so often?

Ann Videriksen

Location: Mercer Island, Washington
Age: 86
Occupation: Retired
March 18: I recently moved here to help care for my granddaughter. Now she is isolated with her mom because her friends mom recently returned from Italy, so I cant see her. High-schoolers are now taking shopping lists from elderly residents on Mercer Island: The kids do the shopping, deliver the groceries, and collect a reimbursement check. Some grocery stores allow the elderly to shop early, 7-9 a.m., when the store is newly disinfected and they can keep away from other shoppers. In December, I sold my home in Los Angeles and then put my money in the stock market. You know how thats going.

The owner of Farm Runners grocery in Hotchkiss, Colorado, shares homemade cloth masks with a patron.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Catherine Hammer

Location: Mills, Wyoming
Age: 68
Occupation: Retail attendant
March 19: Our local hospital received only enough swabs for 100 tests in a town of over 40,000 people. The retail store I work at, Marshalls, closed nationwide today for two weeks, sent us home at noon and will pay us our normal hours. Our country should have been more prepared for this.

Barbara Wortham

Location: Davis, California
Age: 29
Occupation: Ph.D. candidate
March 19: California’s response has been one of the most extreme in the country. Because of that, I think we will be better off in the long run. I was part of the initial Bay Area lockdown. When I take walks around the neighborhood, people are social distancing but still spending time outside.

“It seems like you can hear more birds; there’s definitely not as much noise pollution in town.”

I think the natural world is loving the break from daily leaf-blowers, etc. It seems like you can hear more birds; there’s definitely not as much noise pollution in town. My mother-in-law is a volunteer at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, and she ended up having to leave a week into her normal term because of the risk of getting sick. The response from the national parks has been very slow, and now they are keeping the gates open, but no staff? I hope there is a plan to deal with garbage, or I hope people will just stay home. Let the parks breathe for a second.

Joe Jackson

Location: Provo, Utah
Age: 45
Occupation: Art director
March 20: I feel lucky to drive in my car to the local canyon and fish for trout. That helps me manage the other stressors in life. So far, I haven’t been able to talk my 8-month pregnant wife into joining me on the river. 

“I haven’t been able to talk my 8-month pregnant wife into joining me on the river.”

Kelly Hart

Location: Silver City, New Mexico
Age: 76
Occupation: Writer
March 20: In general, the local response to this has been adequate. At this point, as far as I know, Grant County has no confirmed cases, but all schools, including the university, have closed, as have the museum, movie theater, recreation center and visitor center. Local restaurants are having trouble staying in business, and one has given up and is closing for good. The National Guard is being employed to help deliver lunches to those schoolchildren who depend on these lunches for their daily nutrition. In my lifetime I have never experienced anything like this. I think that there could be some positive outcomes, such as a slowdown of consumerism, less driving, and a greater sense of commonality and cooperation among all of society and all political and ethnic stripes. 

Elizabeth Wargo

Location: Sandpoint, Idaho
Age: 40
Occupation: Assistant professor
March 20: In this dark-horse time, I’m seeing the best of what humanity has to offer. Coming together is not a strong-enough statement — though the rural broadband gap is alive and well as an equity issue right now here in Idaho.

Jim Lazar

Location: Olympia, Washington
Age: 67
Occupation: Economist
March 20: Transit usage and other forms of movement are down to near-zero. That’s a little eerie. Seeing the state Capitol grounds deserted is eerie. People are friendlier when we pass on the sidewalk; there’s a sense that we are all in this together. Today was reminiscent of the day after 9/11: Sunny sky, calm winds, just a picture-perfect day, but a scene from “after the neutron bomb,” with no people in the scene.

Nicola Pitchford

Location: San Rafael, California
Age: 54
Occupation: University dean/vice president
March 20: Being in one of the first counties to go “on lockdown” has been complex but never felt to me like anything but the right decision. The local response has been outstanding. This community has some of the widest economic disparities in the nation, so our experience of the virus is hugely divergent. Privileged people were still on the golf courses until yesterday and out driving around for pleasure. Poor people are in desperate straits, as the cost of living here is already sky-high. I'm an immigrant, although a very privileged one (white, English-speaking, educated, documented, with the right and the means to travel). Something I nevertheless have in common with a lot of other immigrants is that theres a particular psychological stress, a sense of loss, in knowing we actually cannot go “home” for an indefinite time. It elevates the fear that so many folks are experiencing of not being able to be near our loved ones if something happens.

Jon Danielson

Location: Fort Collins, Colorado
Age: 36
Occupation: Engineer
March 20: This is causing me a lot of anxiety, mostly because my wife is expecting our second child the first week of May, right in the middle of the expected peak of the pandemic. Im not only worried about her catching the virus or its impact on our baby, but also about the impact to the public health system, namely our local hospital, due to the pandemic. Will the maternity ward have enough personal protective equipment and other medical equipment? Will there be enough staff that isnt infected with the virus? Will she and the new baby get infected at the hospital?

“Will she and the new baby get infected at the hospital?”

On top of all this, we have canceled all anticipated trips for family members to come and help us. Along with social distancing and the self-isolation needed with a newborn, its going to make taking care of our new, larger family exponentially more difficult.

Jill Rizk

Location: Florence, Oregon
Age: 60
Occupation: Grocery store checker
March 20: I live on the coast, and lots of people in the interior are headed here thinking it’s safer, which in turn stresses our resources, like groceries. Our stores employees are stepping up. Were all pulling more hours and days to meet the demand. Were trying so hard to be nice, but we need the customers to be more understanding and patient. Were almost all stressed emotionally, trying to deal with the anger and impatience of many customers. Suddenly were counselors, trying to listen to everyones concerns while trying to help everyone else. At night, we cry and drink more than we should to cope. We understand, but at the same time feel people need to quit hoarding and think of others when youre purchasing all of something and leaving nothing for others.

TR Kelley

Location: Swisshome, Oregon
Age: 57
Occupation: Musician
March 21: I just saw an entire summers worth of festival gigs evaporate. Were living isolated in the desert, not interacting with governments. I live in Oregon half the year and on the road in the deep Southwest the other half. I’ve been on the road for winter sabbatical, boondocking (dry camping, no hookups) on Bureau of Land Management land in Arizona since October. Our RV community here is a bunch of independent sorts, anyhow; were into ham radio and off-grid life all the time, not just now. I think we are more prepared than most. Well be isolating in the desert for a few more weeks, then returning home to Oregon via back roads. The RV is fully stocked; we can live apart for a long time. Even if cell towers fail, weve got radio and can talk to the world.

Stephanie Maltarich

Location: Gunnison, Colorado
Age: 36
Occupation: Grad student/writing consultant
March 21: Due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, I relocated to Gunnison from Missoula, Montana, to be with my partner. It was interesting to see how Missoula was a few steps behind Gunnison — there were only two confirmed cases in Montana the day I left. Gunnison seems to be a scary place right now. There are so many sick people, and the rural community fears it cannot handle an influx of severe COVID-19 cases. I know a lot of people (over 300) have signed up to volunteer at the call center and to deliver groceries. In such a small community, I am impressed with how folks seem to be taking this seriously. These are scary and weird times; most people I know fear the uncertainty that lies ahead. Its also incredibly frustrating that our country isnt on the same page. People in different states have completely different perceptions relating to the pandemic. This will be problematic for our country. 

Austin Koontz

Location: Logan, Utah
Age: 28
Occupation: Graduate student and research assistant
March 21: The state government has asked restaurants to close. I am not sure if the citizenry of Utah will actually comply. Grocery stores are instituting rules on the number of staple items (rice, beans, flour) that an individual can take, due to panic buying emptying the shelves. Within the graduate student community, my department has been reaching out to one another and offering assistance. This has been a silver lining in this crisis.

“I hope the federal government ... understands the value of disaster preparedness, and remember the sacrifice that individuals made for the greater good.”

I hope this country — and particularly, its government — learns valuable lessons from this pandemic. I hope the federal government (and to a lesser extent, the states) understands the value of disaster preparedness, and remember the sacrifice that individuals made for the greater good. And I hope the citizens of this country remember that, in this time of crisis, our institutions were willing to flex the rules, act with agility, and pass legislation that would have seemed politically insane to even consider prior to the outbreak. I hope people remember this, because this will not be the last health crisis we experience, and because the responses here are only a taste of how we will need to respond if we hope to survive and continue to grow as a society under the threat climate change poses to humanity.

Vivian Goodner

Location: Pocatello, Idaho
Age: 74
Occupation: Volunteer
March 22: Schools, churches, restaurants, etc., are closed except for carryout, and my volunteer post with the Pocatello Police Department is canceled until further notice. The community has responded pretty well; there is concern over wait staff and similar jobs being lost, especially since this is a university town and students need such jobs. People are helping people: I am 74 and have asthma; a friend from the Orthodox church will go and get groceries and dog food for me when I run low. A friend who also has Dobermans will take care of mine if I am hospitalized, and I will take her dogs if needed.

“People are helping people.”

James Dufficy

Location: Denver, Colorado
Age: 24
Occupation: Steelworker
March 26: Under the Colorado quarantine mandate, the family steel business is a “critical business,” as we supply and install materials for the continued construction of the Denver light-rail system. However, we employ many immigrant workers, almost all of whom are considered vulnerable by the Centers for Disease Control because of their age, health conditions, or both. They do not want to go home, as they rely on a paycheck to feed themselves and their families. To stay and continue working puts them at risk.

I would challenge Colorado's definition of “critical businesses” to be more strict and submit that people who fall at the intersection of both “vulnerable” and “critical” should not have to choose between feeding their families and COVID-19. We are currently waiting for the government’s response in hope that they will help supply the necessary aid to keep our employees safe.

John Martinson

Location: Paradise Valley, Arizona
Age: 66
Occupation: Sustainability consultant
March 27: Hoarding has been the biggest problem. Since we are a net importing state, many are concerned about disruption in supply chains. Guns and ammo are flying off shelves. We are staying home, cooking all meals in our kitchen. We have a huge organic garden, and we bought and stocked a chest freezer and a food dehydrator to make food supplies last longer. My mother's stories about growing up in the Great Depression and World War II were the impetus.

Benjamin Brewer

Location: Durango, Colorado
Age: 21
Occupation: Grocery clerk and college student
March 30: The city of Durango needs to implement stricter guidelines when it comes to travel and grouping. I work in a grocery store, and everyday I see tightly spaced aisles with 10-plus people walking lackadaisically with their bare hands and mouths exposed to open air. COVID-19 will spread in grocery stores. The virus is affecting many people’s ability to access the basic non-emergency care they need. I have molar pain and cannot be seen until mid-April at the earliest, although even that seems unlikely. Additionally, I have a hernia surgery that was postponed due to its being “non-critical.”

Christi Bode

Location: Del Norte, Colorado
Age: 36
Occupation: Video producer
April 8: The local response throughout the San Luis Valley has been adequate in pockets, given the limited resources we have. Testing is very limited and creates an inaccurate picture of how much the virus has spread throughout our communities. Decisions made at a statewide level have had unintended consequences for our rural communities in southern Colorado. The sudden closure of Wolf Creek Ski Area was made without any forewarning and left 100-plus employees out of work.

“Food insecurity is being revealed in a much greater way.”

Food insecurity is being revealed in a much greater way. I believe we need to be sharing more stories of hope and resiliency in our rural communities, which are getting very little coverage.

Sarah Capdeville

Location: Missoula, Montana
Age: 27
Occupation: Currently unemployed
April 9: As we move into spring, I worry about the consequences of seasonal employees getting start dates pushed further back, and how this will affect public lands. Ive worked eight seasons with the U.S. Forest Service and was horrified at the treatment and damage of federal lands during the last government shutdown.

Many Western states, including Montana, have not created policies ensuring that people like me have access to our vital medications.”

I have lupus and take hydroxychloroquine to manage my symptoms, and if Im forced to stop taking it [due to shortages from its use as a potential COVID-19 treatment] I could see inflammation and permanent damage to my kidneys, brain, heart and lungs, not to mention making me even more at-risk when it comes to the coronavirus. Many Western states, including Montana, have not created policies ensuring that people like me have access to our vital medications. Also, Missoula has created a nightly tradition of howling from our front steps for workers on the front lines — nurses, doctors, hospital workers, grocery store workers, mail carriers, etc. Its a magical, haunting and heartwarming tradition.

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