To the manager of a hotel in Grand Island, Nebraska, stay-at-home orders have meant the near end of his career — and at the very least, lowered pay and an inability to make ends meet. The same goes for the coffee shop owner in Rapid City, South Dakota, the tailor in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the antique mall owner in Omaha, Nebraska, the restaurateur in Minot, North Dakota, the doctor in Dallas, Texas and the church elder in Topeka, Kansas.
I had no plan as I began to travel the country two weeks ago other than to learn from people in what many call flyover country. Yet, 3,662 miles later, I found that many in the region have the same opinion: The time to open up was weeks ago.
I left Washington, D.C., on a flight that had a total of six people on it — and went through and abandoned Reagan National Airport. Upon my arrival in Austin, Texas, I was one of three people renting a car the entire day. The agent at the desk told me they felt fortunate to have a job after hours had been cut and others had been laid off due to everyone stayin at home.
“I’ll be safe because I’m told I have to by the city, but I don’t get it,” says the restaurateur in Ward County, where Minot, North Dakota, is located. The county had a total of 21 confirmed cases of coronavirus and zero deaths. There, houses are spaced out far more than most residential communities in America and interaction would only happen in closed areas, like bars and restaurants (which have been closed for patrons to sit in), and supermarkets and liquor stores, where the town still congregates to shop.
In Ward County, there was never a need to flatten the curve, because there never was a curve that needed to be flattened. Their total population is 67,641 and they had a total of 21 cases — mathematically .03% of the population — and zero deaths.
There are many more areas like Ward County in the country, especially in flyover, where it is no longer possible to say that the negative economic consequences of shutdowns don’t far outweigh the health concerns.
South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, came under fire for not shutting down her state, which, similar to North Dakota, is mainly comprised of open land and built-in social distance — but she allowed localities to govern themselves. Rapid City, South Dakota, shut down its non-essential businesses, like restaurants and coffee shops, with a total of 12 cases, 1 death and 10 recoveries in all of Pennington County in which it is located.
With a population of 113,775, that is .0008% of the population. There, I sat with a coffee shop owner who has watched his business drop off dramatically, leading to layoffs and potentially the closure of this long-standing establishment. To him, and the many residents of the county, stay-at-home and essential business orders made absolutely no sense.
Americans were told that 2 million people would die because of COVID-19. We were told that we needed to stay at home to “flatten the curve,” which meant stopping hospitals from being overrun with patients, but that once the curve was flattened and numbers began to trail off, we would reopen and life would go back to normal.
Those predictions, models and numbers were designed for people in major cities — cities like New York, where people literally live on top of each other and cram into humid, uncleaned subways and buses to regularly get to work. That isn’t flyover — and it also isn’t even other large cities in the middle of the country.
In Dallas, a prominent doctor is happy to be able to spend more time at home with his family, but worried about what could happen to his patients who needed elective surgeries. He sat at home until recently, because not only was he unable to perform his specified work, but he was never needed on the “front lines” of a battle with COVID-19 that never came.
The hospitals he worked at were never overrun — and he cringes at videos of nurses doing choreographed dance routines on the Chinese-owned TikTok — not because they’re “blowing off steam,” but because they’re bored at hospitals that didn’t even remotely fill during the pandemic.
In all, I traveled to 15 towns in seven states — dropping in on different businesses, staying at airbnb’s and meeting with some of the town’s political leaders. In only one case was someone worried about coronavirus — a small liquor store in the middle of Temple, Texas. There, the clerk spoke to me from behind a clear shower curtain hanging from the ceiling. She told me that she watches CNN every day and that she knows coronavirus numbers are spiking. There were two recent COVID-19 deaths in the area; Bell County, where Temple is located has a population of 362,924. Of its 173 confirmed cases (.04%), 73 have recovered and there are three deaths.
• Tim Young is a political comedian and author of “I Hate Democrats/I Hate Republicans” (Post Hill Press).
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