BOISE CITY – Last week, Boise City felt like the last place in America not touched by the coronavirus. The Bluebonnet Cafe on Main Street was full of its morning regulars, the local parent-teacher organization hosted a pool party, and a church “youth rally” drew more than 60 teenagers and adults for a worship service and meal.
On Monday, in preparation for the first day of school, the local school district held in-person meetings with most of its teaching staff.
In this panhandle community of fewer than 2,100 residents, just one confirmed case of COVID-19 had been reported countywide, and that was nearly four months ago.
“We’ve been blessed,” said Sherridan Perdue, a Boise City resident of 14 years.
But on Tuesday, word began to spread of another positive case.
The next day, neighbors shared rumors of more residents who tested positive and several teachers notified their principal they would not be able to make the first day of school on Thursday because of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in their household.
The school district initially put out a call for substitutes on its Facebook page, but by Wednesday evening the decision was made to postpone the new school year for at least two weeks.
Boise City, the state’s westernmost major town that had felt like a world away from the coronavirus pandemic, was now adjusting to a reality much of the country had known for months.
At the Boise City Family Pharmacy owners Jimmy and Terri Weaver decided to close their building to customers and provide only curbside service to reduce face-to-face contact.
“Our pharmacist is older than dirt, so it wouldn’t be good if he got (COVID-19),” Terri said with a laugh, referring to her 75-year-old husband.
“We are the only pharmacy in town, so if we had to shut down because we got it the community would be in trouble. Because the population is so small, it wouldn’t take much to wipe us out.”
Several Boise City residents told The Frontier they were concerned they may have been exposed to a COVID-19 positive person, especially with such a small degree of separation in the town.
The local Baptist church found out one of its attendees on Sunday later tested positive for COVID-19 and Rev. Trevor Bulls spent much of the week alerting other members who might have been in contact.
“I’ve got a lot of calls to make,” Bulls said.
Cimarron County, home to Boise City, had been an easy county to find on the state Department of Health’s risk map, as it’s the only county shaded green, which represents no immediate risk of COVID-19 spread.
But the addition of just 10 new daily cases could propel Cimarron County to the top of the list in the state for cases per 100,000 residents, making it a red- or orange-colored county like all other in Oklahoma.
The office of Cimarron County Emergency Management confirmed on Thursday that nine positive tests have been reported in the county, although the results of tests taken outside the county were unknown.
Several residents said they had traveled out of county, including neighboring Texas, to get a COVID-19 test.
This week’s first confirmed case was believed to be a staff member of Boise City Public Schools. The superintendent did not return a phone call seeking comment, but several school staff members said the person attended a recent teacher-wide meeting that resulted in other school staff members getting sick.
At least 644 Oklahomans have died due to the coronavirus, and while the state’s major urban centers have seen the most cases, rural areas, including southeast Oklahoma, have also been severely impacted.
The state’s seven-day average of new cases has declined in recent days, but state health officials worry the start of the school year could causes cases to increase, especially in rural communities that have so far avoided spikes.
“With some of our more rural counties, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a little bit of uptick in transmission just because a lot of school-related activities bringing students from one school in contact with another school,” said Aaron Wendelboe, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the former interim state epidemiologist.
“And fortunately, the rural nature of our state has worked in our favor for lots of our counties that just haven’t seen a lot of cases. But I am worried that some of those counties that haven’t seen a lot of disease in the past might see it here in the fall for those reasons.”
Health officials say rural communities across the country also face a unique risk because of a lack of health care services, an older population and a prevalence of existing health problems.
“This is an older community, so I think a lot of people are cautious,” Perdue said.
Cimarron County’s only hospital is a 25-bed facility that has struggled to stay open. Last year, the hospital raffled football tickets to raise money for a second ventilator, a much needed medical device in some coronavirus treatments.
But some Boise City residents said they weren’t worried about the rise in cases because they considered it a politically-created crisis ahead of the presidential election.
Thursday morning at the Bluebonnet Cafe, men in cowboy hats debated whether it was too wet to plow their fields. When the conversation turned to COVID-19, a man in a “Trump 2020” hat sighed in disgust. “They just keep trying to take our president down,” he said.
In 2016, nine out of 10 Cimarron County voters supported Trump, who early in the pandemic downplayed it as an attempt to hurt his reelection chances.
Wayne Twyman, the city manager of Boise City, said he believed the coronavirus might be a political fear tactic.
“It’s something that’s serious, you need to be aware of it, but I’m not going to go hide in the corner,” Twyman said. “This is being used politically for other reasons and that’s wrong.”
Twyman said he was worried a spike in COVID-19 cases might derail local economic development efforts currently underway.
Much of Boise City’s downtown street is under construction and the city is preparing land near the highway bypass in hopes of attracting new businesses.
“I don’t know how many companies are going to build something with this going on. This (pandemic) is bad for business that we need in a town like this,” Twyman said.
At the Love’s Travel Stop on the east end of town, which stays busy with motorists traveling between Texas and Colorado, two states less than 20 miles from Boise City, a handful of shoppers are wearing masks.
“That’s new,” said the teenage clerk, who added that the only people she saw wearing masks recently were delivery drivers from out of town.
One of the shopper wearing a mask was Sarah Ford, who had brought her two children to get drinks.
“I used to just see people wearing masks on TV but now you are seeing it more here,” Ford said. “Right now, life still feels pretty normal but this time next week who knows how it will feel.”