The Mountain County That Went into Coronavirus Lockdown

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The Mountain County That Went into Coronavirus Lockdown

The luxury Snowbird Mountain Lodge might seem out of place in the remote, impoverished town of Robbinsville, in Graham County, on North Carolina’s western border with Tennessee. But people from across the Southeast wind their way along mountainous roads and pay upwards of $ 400 a night to fish, hike, dine on upscale Southern cuisine, and soak up bluegrass or Appalachian music. The lodge, owned for the past 26 years by Mandy and Robert Rankin, was about three-quarters full on March 22. When Robert got to work that morning, the front desk clerk showed him an announcement that county officials had posted on Facebook.

Graham County was closing itself off.

With the coronavirus beginning to spread nearby, all accommodation businesses in the county—hotels, motels, guesthouses, campgrounds—had to close by March 23 at noon; exceptions would be made only for people who could prove the need for a “legitimate work-related stay.” What’s more, starting on March 27, anyone traveling on Highways 129 and NC-28—the two roads into Graham County—would have to show a county address or, for nonresidents, proof of property ownership in order to enter. Anyone seeking to enter for business purposes would have to apply for a permit. Checkpoints with orange cones and barricades soon went up, and sheriff’s deputies camped out under tents around the clock.

It was an early and stark decision to fight coronavirus by almost entirely shutting down contact with the outside world. The Rankins—like other business owners catering to the all-important tourism industry in Graham County—spent the next few days scrambling to clear out their lodge, issuing refunds, laying off staff and closing the business, for only the second time in the lodge’s 80 years. The last time was during World War II.

“Obviously, there’s a huge financial hit,” Mandy told me. “But most people understand we’re all in this together.”

The Mountain County That Went into Coronavirus Lockdown 2

The coronavirus response has opened up a national argument that often follows political lines, with conservative governments in rural states squaring off against the dense, liberal cities that have been hit by the epidemic hardest. But the approach of Graham County—a rural, solidly red part of North Carolina—shows that the patchwork of American coronavirus responses has been far more complicated than that, and that the virus can present issues even for places that took it seriously early on.

Until recently, Graham County was represented in Congress by Mark Meadows, the small-government Republican who co-founded the House Freedom Caucus. The county voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Yet, as Trump and many fellow conservatives downplayed the virus in its early days, and have since pushed for a quicker reopening of the country, Graham and the surrounding counties in western North Carolina have charted a different course.

Graham, with fewer than 9,000 residents, decided to seal itself off a week before Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s statewide stay-at-home order went into effect. Dare County, on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast, also closed its borders, but only after several cases of Covid-19 had been identified there; few other counties across the country have gone so far. Meanwhile, other western North Carolina counties implemented early testing, tracing and public safety campaigns.

As of this writing, the 19 counties in the western part of the state have seen 676 Covid-19 cases, representing a lower per capita rate than other parts of North Carolina. The only county in the state that has seen no reported Covid-19 cases to date—Avery—is in this region. Isolation certainly helps, but local officials believe their efforts have played a big role, too. And while some in the area called Graham County’s road closures excessive or unnecessary, the majority of western North Carolina residents I spoke with expressed support for the actions local officials have taken.

For this part of the state, they said, coronavirus isn’t a matter of red or blue; it’s about basic survival. Graham, like much of western North Carolina counties, has no hospital—the closest one is 40 minutes away. And it keeps just two ambulances running at a time, according to County Manager Rebecca Garland. Five hospitals and several labor and delivery units in the western part of the state have closed since 2016. On top of that, the region’s population skews older, and faces high rates of obesity, diabetes and other comorbidities. Roughly 20 percent fall below the federal poverty line, according to Census data.

“We’re remote and limited in resources,” Garland explained to local news outlet, the Carolina Public Press, when the lodging and road closures went into effect. “We’re trying to do everything in our power to protect the residents and our resources.”

Brian Mitchell, a physician in nearby Cherokee County, says the same is true across the region. “There aren’t a lot of resources here,” Mitchell told me. “That was our concern early on.”

The resources are so limited, in fact, that Graham County officials ultimately decided that they couldn’t afford to police its own lockdown, so they removed the checkpoints on April 19, just three weeks after they went up. The county simply didn’t have the tens of thousands of dollars it cost for deputies to man the barriers, officials explained in a Facebook post announcing the decision. Seven days later, Graham County saw its first reported case of the virus. Yet, as protesters have rallied in Raleigh for the economy to reopen, many restrictions in western North Carolina remain in place, and the numbers in the region remain low—at least for now.

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Known for an annual “Possum Drop” that took place every New Year’s Eve until 2019, and for the only school district in the state where high schoolers can still receive corporal punishment, western North Carolina is often maligned for an anachronistic way of life. The area is not wealthy—the median household income falls below the national average—and is more than 90 percent white, despite being home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), a sovereign nation descended from a small group of Cherokees who remained after the Indian Removal Act.

With the exception of Buncombe and Henderson counties, tourism is the main industry, forcing many to travel hours to Asheville or neighboring states for other kinds of work. The counties’ geography, economies and lifestyle are so interconnected that people tend to identify more as residents of the wider region. These counties’ location along the Tennessee border, in the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains, also makes them the least populous region in the state.

Western North Carolina’s first coronavirus cases were identified in Clay and Cherokee, two of the area’s most remote counties. According to local health workers, on March 10, a New Yorker traveled to Brasstown, an unincorporated area of Clay and Cherokee counties, for a family reunion. A day after attending a contra dance at the John C. Campbell Folk School with about 90 others, the woman began experiencing symptoms and subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus while still in North Carolina.

The Mountain County That Went into Coronavirus Lockdown 3

Within hours of confirmation of the first Covid-19 case, Mitchell, the Cherokee county physician, as well as the nonprofit Dogwood Health Trust in Asheville and the Clay and Cherokee health departments, began working to mitigate the spread of the virus, Mitchell recounted in an interview. Dogwood turned the folk school’s festival barn into a testing facility for dance attendees and their contacts. Those tested agreed to self-isolate while awaiting their results. Six people tested positive, and health officials used contract tracing to identify one additional infected person.

“We understood early on that if there was a surge locally, we may be overwhelmed,” Mitchell says, noting that Cherokee County has a small community hospital, with six beds in its ICU and 50 beds in its inpatient unit. “But, fortunately, that has not happened.” To date, he says, some of the seven infected people have remained positive, while others have tested negative; all remain asymptomatic. There have been no additional cases reported in the Brasstown community since March 24.

Other counties took similarly far-reaching measures. Madison County Health Director Tammy Cody told me she believes the county’s handwashing and social distancing campaign, launched in January, has been effective. The county of 21,000 detected its first and only Covid-19 case to date on April 24, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. The Cherokee County health director, David Badger, says county officials there began meeting weekly in mid-February to prepare for the virus. “Everybody knew the global pandemic was gonna be an issue of concern for us,” Badger says.

After the virus was detected, the town of Andrews, located in Cherokee County, erected physical barriers to prevent anyone beyond its neighboring counties from entering. All part-time residents were ordered to quarantine for 14 days when they arrived. On March 25, the EBCI shut down the entry points to the Qualla Boundary, a land trust supervised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that straddles Swain and Jackson counties, as well as parts of Graham and Cherokee. Richard Bunio, executive medical director of Cherokee Indian Hospital, says the decision was driven by uncertainty. “Was the virus going to take hold here like it did in New York City? We just didn’t know. If we hadn’t closed the boundary, there’s no way to know how bad it could have gotten,” Bunio told me. The EBCI has identified seven cases, and its borders remain closed.

The Mountain County That Went into Coronavirus Lockdown 4

Then there’s Graham County, at the far western edge of the state. Visitors flock there to enjoy the mountain wilderness, whitewater raft on the Cheoah River or ride the Tail of the Dragon, one of America’s most popular motorcycle routes, named for its hundreds of switchbacks over an 11-mile stretch. With just two ways in or out, Graham, unlike its neighbors, was better positioned to seal itself off.

After hearing about the case in Brasstown, which is about 45 minutes away, the county’s commissioners, health director and manager feared they couldn’t handle even a small outbreak. County officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this article, but they made clear in their updates on the county Facebook page and comments to local news outlets that a lack of resources drove them to take the most restrictive measures in the state.

“We don’t have anything here in the county to treat people,” Dale Wiggins, the county commission chair, told the local NPR station. “That just makes it a little bit more real when your neighbors are dealing with it.” He added that the Tail of the Dragon was also a factor. On a busy weekend, up to 20,000 bikers tackle the route. Wiggins told the station that a high motorcycle fatality rate coupled with the coronavirus would be too much to bear.

***

Beginning earlier this month, protesters have occasionally gathered at the state capitol in Raleigh to demand an end to the statewide stay-at-home order (it is set to expire on May 8). Some in Graham County share the protesters’ sentiments. One local business owner, who asked not to be identified for fear of angering others in the community, told me via email that the closure was slowly suffocating businesses and had forced him to lay off seven employees. He called the county lockdown “an extreme level of governmental control in the name of public safety,” and contended that the county’s measures were unlawful and unconstitutional. “Who gave this county commissioner the power to close a US highway, a major route from North Carolina to Tennessee?” he wrote.

Norma Houston, a University of North Carolina expert on legal issues that affect local governments, says a 2019 state law made clear that “cities and counties [can] declare a local state of emergency and impose restrictions and prohibitions, including restricting the movement of people in public places, and limiting ingress and egress coming into or leaving an emergency area,” as Houston puts it. “There is also specific authority to close roads.”

The Mountain County That Went into Coronavirus Lockdown 5

Complaints like the Graham County business owner’s notwithstanding, Brian Turner, a Democratic third-term state representative who represents Buncombe County, home to Asheville, says it’s not surprising that a conservative region would reject the message coming from national Republicans and support restrictive measures to fight the virus. “Historically, there’s been a bit of suspicion with outsiders. It’s a weird dynamic with mountain folk sometimes. They can be incredibly generous and, simultaneously, incredibly insular and protective,” Turner says. “I think there’s also some legitimacy to the [lack of] resources. There just aren’t many ventilators and ICU beds out there.”

The Graham County businessman I spoke with, who identifies as very conservative, has his doubts. “They say that they can’t open things back up because of possibly overloading the hospitals, yet hospitals are laying people off because of lack of patients. I went down to our local clinic. There was only one other person in the waiting room,” he wrote over email. Even though the county went well beyond state measures, he nonetheless blames Raleigh, above all, for what he calls “ridiculous political restrictions.”

This is not the first time this conservative mountain region has refused to toe the Republican Party line. In March 2019, Graham County commissioners sent a unanimous resolution to the state Legislature in support of expanding Medicaid. Six months later, Wiggins, the commission chair, appealed directly to Senate leader Phil Berger. “We don’t have the luxury of doing things based on some national political party’s stance on some issue,” Wiggins wrote. In January, he drove to Raleigh to lobby his own party for the expansion, only to find the General Assembly had wrapped up the session after just a few hours.

“The failure to expand Medicaid in some of these rural counties is killing people,” Turner says. “They don’t have access to primary care doctors, so they wait until their condition gets acute, then they go to the emergency room.” Asked whether recent disagreements with the Republican Party would lead more western North Carolinians to vote Democrat, Turner answered “no” without hesitation, citing the importance of social issues.

On April 17, the Graham County commissioners met to evaluate how the closure was working and concluded it was time for the barriers to come down. The initial plan for three manned ID checkpoints at two blocked entrances was later expanded to five checkpoints, which cost the county about $ 92,000 per week, according to a note Garland, the county manager, posted on social media. With an annual county budget of roughly $ 15 million, that wasn’t sustainable.

The Mountain County That Went into Coronavirus Lockdown 6

Again, the announcement came via Facebook: “Checkpoints and barriers to highways entering Graham County … will be removed Sunday night April 19, 2020 no later than 11:59 p.m.” One week after reopening, the Health Department announced the first case of Covid-19 in the county; the patient, a member of the EBCI, is reportedly isolating at home while health officials work to trace all known contacts. An additional case was reported on May 2.

Little else has changed. Residents remain subject to the state’s stay-at-home order and the county’s 10 p.m. curfew. All nonresidents who enter Graham County must observe a 14-day self-quarantine. Lodging businesses remain closed.

Despite having to lay off staff and losing roughly $ 500,000 in revenue, the Rankins still largely support the county’s measures. “The concern I have is from an economic standpoint,” Robert says. “What if we reopen and then everything kicks back up, and we’re forced to shut down again?” (The Rankins wouldn’t disclose their political affiliation to me, aside from expressing “extreme disappointment” with both parties.)

“What’s needed most here is patience,” Robert continues. “It’s better to deal with it now, with broad testing and tracing and those kinds of things. That’s what the health community is calling for, and that’s the only way we’ll even get back remotely to normal. You can’t isolate these mountains forever. When we open back up, whatever’s out there is going to come in.”


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