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The Nevada Independent

As COVID-19 creeps into rural life, small towns reckon with the pandemic's uncertainties

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley

As motorists journey through central-eastern Nevada, there’s only one music station in a more than 100-mile radius.

Based in Ely, KDSS (92.7 FM) broadcasts an adult contemporary mix along with some live programming. Mondays generally feature “oldies and goodies,” with feel-good hits on Tuesdays, country on Wednesdays, rock and roll on Thursdays and a multi-decade smorgasbord on Fridays when a volunteer deejay takes over the airwaves, said Karen Livingston, the station’s owner, general manager and on-air personality.

But, in recent weeks, a new segment has been added to the normal lineup — daily chats with Ely’s mayor, Nathan Robertson, about the coronavirus crisis.

“The only thing that I have normally is national news,” she said. “We’re such a small town. When this all happened, it was like, ‘No, our listeners — they’ve got to know what’s happening.”

And so with a call to the mayor, the news segment debuted on March 18, one day after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the shutdown of all nonessential businesses, including casinos. Initially, Livingston said she envisioned a six-day-a-week broadcast, but then health officials announced White Pine County’s first — and so far only — coronavirus case on March 29, a Sunday. 

Now, Robertson makes his daily on-air appearance at 11:30 a.m., giving updates and answering listener-submitted questions. Sometimes the local hospital’s chief executive officer, school district superintendent, county sheriff or district attorney joins him. The station rebroadcasts the chats at 7 p.m.

Livingston and Robertson consider the radio broadcasts a vital service in a town (population: about 4,000), where the local newspaper, The Ely Times, publishes a weekly print edition and some residents watch Salt Lake City television newscasts. 

“It’s an easy way to get the information out in real time,” Robertson said.

The modern-day fireside chat is one way rural communities are adjusting to the coronavirus-triggered closures that have upended life in places big and small across the state. In Nevada’s sparsely populated communities, health and economic fears aren’t all that different from those in Reno or Las Vegas. But the closures add an extra wrinkle to daily routines in places where many people know each other by name and rely on that neighborly culture.

Wendover Will
West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona is driving toward the center of town with "Wendover Will" in the background on Feb. 22, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

An ‘eerie’ quiet

Like many Americans, West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona has started to forget what day of the week it is. In the northeastern Nevada town on the border of Utah, that is especially notable. 

It is usually easy to tell when the work week ends and the weekend starts. On some weekends, as many as 20,000 visitors drive to West Wendover (population: about 4,000) to stay at one of its casinos, stock up at a large Lee’s Liquors or visit the marijuana dispensary.

Now, the casinos are closed. They are by far the largest employers in West Wendover. Corona estimated that 78 percent of the population is employed at one of the large casinos that line Wendover Boulevard, where a neon sign of a cowboy named “Wendover Will” greets visitors.

It has changed the town, Corona said. It’s not just the masks at the grocery stores that make things different. Stores are seeing their peak hours at different times as people are no longer coming in between their shifts. They are no longer shopping in their work uniforms.

"[About] 80 percent of the town is at home,” Corona said. “And with the school being closed, it's probably close to 90 percent. I don't know how to explain it. It's just an eerie feeling almost."

West Wendover is in Elko County, and although the county is in the lower-range of coronavirus cases per capita, it is the only rural county to report a death from the illness. That reported death happened to a West Wendover resident, a woman in her 50s, Corona said. 

“It hit the community really hard,” he added. 

This was no longer an abstract illness, and the community saw that it could infect anyone.

“People saw that and said, ‘this could be my mom or my dad,” he added.

But abiding by social distancing can be hard in a tight-knit community like West Wendover. The small town is an island at the edge of Nevada — the two largest towns are Elko to the west and Salt Lake City to the east. Both are about an hour-and-a-half drive away. 

And there can be real-world challenges with cutting off travel and sheltering in place. Corona recalled a phone conversation with a resident who splits custody with her daughter’s father in Salt Lake City. Although he said "more people are canceling or rescheduling appointments,” residents might need to travel to Utah to see a doctor for other health issues or to get a prescription. 

Eerie was a word repeated over and over again by Corona and others in describing how swiftly the coronavirus has brought activity to a halt in rural towns.

Sheldon Mudd, executive director of the Northeastern Nevada Regional Development Authority, said in Battle Mountain, where he lives, it was eerie to only see traffic in grocery stores and “everything slow to a crawl.”

At the start, Mudd noted that media reports suggested that business was continuing as usual, even after Gov. Steve Sisolak’s business closure order, in rural towns like Winnemucca, Battle Mountain and Elko. He said that there were some “outliers,” as was the case in Las Vegas and Reno, but that most of the businesses were complying. Still, he conceded that, in some cases, officials have had to combat an ethos of individualism that sometimes is reluctant to seek government help.

Mudd said it’s been important to impress upon businesses the need to apply for emergency loans.

“We've really tried to convince them and say 'These are your tax dollars,’” he said.

The Nevada Northern Railway lucked out in that regard. 

Mark Bassett, the railway’s president, praised First National Bank of Ely officers for their “around the clock” work to secure funding for the historic train depot through the Paycheck Protection Program, a Small Business Administration loan initiative designed to keep businesses and nonprofits afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Nevada Northern Railway received approval this week for a $156,444 loan. Bassett said the money will cover 18 employees’ paychecks — preventing the railway from having to lay off workers who would be tough to replace.

“Quite frankly, where do you find a steam engineer?” he said. “Trying to keep these people as part of the railroad family is incredibly important.”

The closures have halted train excursions that generate revenue for the nonprofit. The railway had planned a special train ride this weekend to coincide with the 90th anniversary of “The Little Engine That Could” children’s book. 

A train with a ticket taker and three passengers in line to board
Bill Holht, a Nevada Northern Railway conductor, validates tickets during a Star Train excursion with a group of Chinese travel agents on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Instead, Bassett read the story aloud in front of Locomotive 40 while a camera rolled, and the railway posted the video on its Facebook page. He considered the story’s theme of determination — “I think I can. I think I can.” — too important to scrap the event altogether.

“It’s actually a story that resonates with what we’re going through today,” he said. “Ironically, it was published in 1930 in the middle of the Great Depression.”

As much as the train depot is an institution in Ely, so too is the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, which sits about 170 miles to the west. A message appeared on the 112-year-old hotel’s website this week:

“We have made the difficult decision to close our beloved Mizpah Hotel while COVID-19 continues to affect our lives. We will take this time to renovate, clean & update Her and be at the ready when it is safe to do so!”

John McCormick, the general manager of the Mizpah, said business had dwindled to three or four rooms occupied a night. The hotel relies on “folks passing through” Tonopah on U.S. 95 for much of its business, he said, but now those travelers are holed up at their homes around the country.

“We’re used to just cars and trucks all day long,” he said. “I can go out there now and look from one end of town to the other, and you might see a car or a truck. It is kind of weird.”

But the century-old hotel won’t be totally deprived of activity during the pandemic. McCormick said the majority of staff members have been retained to help freshen up the Tonopah treasure — staining woodwork, removing carpets, repairing wall imperfections and painting the restaurant.

“It’s been an ongoing project for us, but we’re going to ramp that up now,” he said.

Signs on Winnemucca Blvd
Signs for businesses on Winnemucca Blvd. in Winnemucca, NV on Feb. 23, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Not all businesses have closed, but even those that remain open have been forced to adjust. John Arant, who owns The Martin Hotel, a popular Basque restaurant in Winnemucca, said they have moved to takeout and curbside service. He said business is down about two-thirds.

As in other communities across the country, he said the town has banded together to help support local businesses, ordering takeout twice a week when they might have cooked at home.

"It's keeping us all afloat,” he said. “And people are buying gift certificates when you know they don't need them. It's a very bonding event for the community. That's the positive."

Robertson, mayor of Ely, noted another silver lining in his community: Two of the region’s major employers, the Robinson Mine and Ely State Prison, have been deemed essential businesses, lessening the economic blow.

“I think we’re in a better position than some places,” he said.

Still, Livingston said KDSS hasn’t even tried to sell advertising during this period. She knows too many small businesses have closed, rendering advertising unnecessary. But the radio station, which has gained more than 1,000 likes on its Facebook page in recent weeks, received a surprise call from Robinson Mine officials.

“They called us and said, ‘We want to sponsor your interview with the mayor,’” she said. “I said, ‘Absolutely!’”

Complications and workarounds

The long-term effects of the coronavirus crisis, however, worry rural community and business leaders just as much as their peers in the city’s urban locales.

Winnemucca is the largest town in Humboldt County, which was reporting the highest number of per-capita cases as of Saturday evening. About a dozen of the county’s 18 cases are a result of spread after a family gathering, said Winnemucca Mayor Richard Stone. Still, there is anxiety in the community, he said, not only about the public health crisis not but also about the economy in the months ahead.

Sheltering at home poses other unique challenges, including the ability to weigh in on projects that developers and federal agencies are proposing to build on public land. 

In Nevada’s rural counties, the federal government has significant influence over how land is managed. Across the state, federal agencies manage about 85 percent of the land for multiple uses, from military bases to mining, from solar development to conservation. 

At any given time, agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees about 67 percent of the state’s land, are seeking public comment on several projects. But with most residents sheltering at home, it is difficult to attend public comment meetings — if they are held — and alternatives are not always sufficient, some officials and environmental activists have argued.

On Wednesday, the city of Fernley went as far as to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, alleging the western water agency was unwilling to extend a public comment period for a complicated and controversial project to do maintenance on the Truckee Canal. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe had requested a similar extension, according to the court complaint.

The complaint lists specific area residents who own domestic wells and are unable to comment online. One resident, the complaint says, is 71 and “functionally ‘computer illiterate.'” Another resident, who is 75, is “‘very limited in [his] ability to use the internet' but has grave concerns with Reclamation’s proposed project,” according to the complaint.

"It's a process that is super impactful to Fernley and the residents,” said Daphne Hopper, the city manager for Fernley. “In order to make it a fair process, the residents and the city need to be able to participate fully."

There are other frustrations, too.

Sometimes when a business closes, it’s hard not to see that through a personal lens, said Mudd, who lives in Battle Mountain and runs the economic development authority.

“Out here in these small areas, it's hard not to take things personally sometimes,” Mudd said. “And a lot of that is because we are close knit. When we have a small business, it's not the doughnut shop. That's Bill's place or that's Andrea's shop. Our kids go to school together.”

When people see their friends’ businesses close, it’s harder not to be frustrated with economic restrictions, like the business closures. Mudd said “it took a few days to get over that.”

Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson works the check-out register at Ridley's on March 21, 2020. Robertson has been volunteering during senior hours at the grocery store in recent weeks. (Photo courtesy of Shadrach Michaels)

But he said the “close-knit” character of his community could be an advantage when businesses are allowed to re-open. He predicts business will be “flooded” when they turn the lights back on.

Katie Neddenriep, the executive director of the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority, said that her “reservation schedule has been wiped clean.” On Thursday, the visitors authority announced that the 35th Annual Elko Mining Expo, a big event for the region, was being postponed to 2021. 

She said not having the mining expo this year was “going to be a tremendous financial hit to the community,” but if business closures continue, it would have been impossible to host anyway.

In Ely and West Wendover, much smaller but highly anticipated events — including annual Easter egg hunts — also met their demise. Both communities, however, have launched modified versions of the tradition by asking residents to hang egg decorations in their windows.

It’s a social distancing-approved way to let some of the holiday cheer continue.

“They have found such great workarounds for a lot of this stuff,” Robertson said.

Abnormally quiet streets and empty parking lots, though, haven’t dampened Neddenriep’s enthusiasm for her day job, which is wrangling visitors to Northeastern Nevada.

"When everything settles down and the world opens up, come to Elko,” she said. “Come see us. It's a great place to be. Even on our best days, it's not crowded here. "

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