As pandemic spreads, ‘life continues as normal’ in many rural communities

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A farm outside Newkirk in northern Oklahoma. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

On a day when the state’s largest cities were closing restaurants and Gov. Kevin Stitt recommended that Oklahomans not go out to eat, Bob and Faith Capone officially opened Capone Hoagies in downtown Newkirk, hoping to draw a crowd from the town of 2,100 in north central Oklahoma.

“We thought maybe nobody would show up because of what is going on,” Bob said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic.  

“But we had everybody show up. For us as a new business that was great.”

As the spread of coronavirus has major cities across the country taking significant measures to reduce crowds of even a few people, Newkirk residents lined up out the door Tuesday for the new restaurant serving sandwiches with mobster-themed names. 

“You still see people supporting a new business, you still see people downtown, life continues as normal,” said Kevin Roe, a retired firefighter in Newkirk, who ordered a sandwich Wednesday. 

“Keeping a distance is tough for a community of huggers.”

Newkirk has been impacted by the coronavirus through a state-ordered closing of the public schools, at least one retail business in downtown has closed for the next few weeks and Newkirk Mayor Brian Hobbs recently signed an emergency order and closed city hall to the public. 

But the level of response seen in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman and many other cities in the state’s two largest metros is largely absent in many rural communities like Newkirk. 

“Some people here think I’m overdoing it,” Hobbs said about his emergency order. “And I understand that reaction because there is a part of me that also thinks this is an overreaction.”

Kevin Roe, left, and Mayor Brian Hobbs chat at Capone Hoagies in Newkirk on March 18, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Oklahoma has received national attention for public officials downplaying the coronavirus threat. 

Stitt was still encouraging Oklahomans to eat out on Monday, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe extended his hand for a shake when a reporter asked last week if he was concerned, and Canadian County Sheriff Chris West referred to the coronavirus as a hoax “just like the fake Russian collusion investigation.”

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said the closure of all restaurants, bars, gyms and theaters was an appropriate response to the pandemic. 

“It’s literally a life or death choice and we have chosen life,” Holt said. 

On Tuesday, Stitt said he did not want to mandate business closures, but he did issue an order recommending Oklahomans not eat out or gather with 10 or more people, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Now is not the time for recommendations,” said Norman Mayor Breea Clark, who ordered restaurants, bars and other public establishments to close in her city. 

“I’m concerned we are going to get a piecemeal approach instead of having a uniformed approach, which is what we need to fight this.”

An antiques store in downtown Newkirk was closed on March 18 in response to the coronavirus. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

But Hobbs, the mayor of Newkirk, said he was against closing the handful of restaurants and bars in his town.

“I won’t support it here. If it gets that bad they may have to remove me,” Hobbs said. “But I trust my people, I trust the people I grew up with. We don’t have people putting each other in harm’s way. 

“If I come out and say we are locking everything down, people are going to be angry. If I say go out and do what you want and one person dies I’m going to get that hung around my neck. I’m okay with hanging that around my neck because I trust my people.”

Statewide cases of the coronavirus reached 29 on Wednesday, according to state health officials. 

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Kay County, of which Newkirk is the county seat, has two positive tests for coronavirus. 

The Ponca City hospital, about 12 miles from Newkirk, has a triage tent in front of the emergency room entrance to perform coronavirus tests without exposing a person to the rest of the hospital. 

Ponca City restaurants remained open Wednesday, but the city closed its senior center and suspended library and parks programming. 

The college town of Stillwater is the closest city to Ponca City and Newkirk to order the closure of restaurants and bars, which Ponca City Mayor Homer Nicholson said was not a step he felt was necessary for his city.

“My belief is that Stillwater did this due to the fact that they are a college city with thousands of students that frequent restaurants and bars,” Nicholson said. “We will not do what the City of Stillwater has done unless there is a reason to do so here in Ponca City.”

The hospital in Ponca City in Kay County, where a person tested positive for the coronavirus, has medical tents set up at the emergency room entrance. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

While rural communities lack the centralized population that can facilitate a quick spread of the coronavirus, an outbreak could be uniquely challenging for small towns, said Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. 

Rural communities across the state have faced hospital closures and a shortage of medical professionals. 

“Like the entire state, rural hospitals are struggling right now with a lack of testing kits when patients show symptoms and rural hospitals are really struggling to get enough personal protection equipment” for medical staff, Davis said. 

Health officials say most people who contract the coronavirus will not require hospitalization 

“But when someone does need to the go to the hospital and they don’t have (a hospital) in their local community, that means they have to rely on transportation … and that’s very concerning for the entire hospital system,” Davis said. 

Maddie Shinn had a non-coronavirus related doctor’s appointment in Ponca City on Wednesday and said she didn’t hesitate to interact with people in the waiting room or eat lunch at a nearby Braum’s. 

“I think it is all too much,” Shinn said about the national response. “Either it is as bad as they say, and in that case you can’t stop it, or everyone is panicking for no reason.”

Health officials expect the number of positive coronavirus tests to increase in the coming days partly as a result of more people getting tested. 

But most health officials believe death and sickness from the pandemic can be mitigated through significant social distancing practices, such as maintaining several feet between people and avoiding crowds. 

“We ask everyone to follow the instructions for social responsibility, social distance,” said Laurence Burnsed, the state epidemiologist. 

Back at the Newkirk hoagie shop, Rowe said he wasn’t worried about the coronavirus, but acknowledged the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should take precautions. 

“This is the latest thing that the media has hyped up to the point where everyone is terrified,” Roe said. 

Hobbs agreed, but believes if it were as bad as many say it might be too late. 

“We could all have it right now,” Hobbs said. “If I get sick and I die I hope my kids know I love ‘em, that my neighbors and my people know I love ‘em and I did the best that I could.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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