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Coronavirus hasn’t hurt these areas of the U.S. — but its economic impact has

While COVID-19 has devastated parts of the U.S., including hot spots like New York, New Jersey and Louisiana, many counties in Western states have few cases and no deaths. Some officials and residents in those areas feel that pandemic restrictions were overly cautious. But health experts fear that limited local hospital capacity means a high risk of becoming overwhelmed. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The toll of COVID-19 has been focused on the nation's hot spots, from New York and New Jersey to Louisiana, Michigan and California.

    But there are many counties and states across the rural West where case numbers are in the single digits, with no deaths.

    Stephanie Sy takes a look at the COVID divide.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Protests across America have pointed to a dilemma state officials have been grappling with since the coronavirus outbreak began: How much economic pain should business owners and employees endure to protect the public from COVID-19?

    In urban areas, where people live and work in close contact, there's less debate, but across parts of the West, in towns of only a few thousand people, the question can be more complicated.

  • Jennifer Ramsey:

    We are already so remote and rural that there wasn't a lot of risk here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jennifer Ramsey owns the Iron Bar, a gym in Pinedale, Wyoming. The surrounding county, called Sublette, has recorded one case of COVID-19, and no deaths.

  • Jennifer Ramsey:

    People were doing their part with social distancing. And people wanted to open up. They wanted to work. They were worried about their livelihoods.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    With that in mind, Ramsey defied the statewide order and reopened, only to be shut back down.

  • Jennifer Ramsey:

    This business pays for everything, my mortgage, my utilities at home. And I ended up getting an eviction notice. I was pretty stressed out about all that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    With lockdowns now relaxing in Wyoming, she was allowed to reopen in recent days, with precautions in place.

    Across town, The Cowboy Bar is also open, partially. Owner Lila Golden also leases space to a barbershop and a restaurant in the building.

  • Lila Golden:

    All three of us have suffered from it. I don't think Wyoming should have been shut down, let alone Sublette County.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She found a work-around to keep her business open, serving food and drinks outside. The county health officer said she wasn't violating the state's order.

  • Lila Golden:

    He said he didn't have a problem with it, but we had to keep at least six-feet social distance. As long as we did that, and the bartenders brought drinks, and another one took money, then we could do this.

  • Brendan Fitzsimmons:

    They found a little loophole.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Brendan Fitzsimmons is the health officer in Sublette County. His fear is overwhelming the region's health care facilities.

  • Brendan Fitzsimmons:

    We don't have a hospital, and we're dependent on some of the surrounding hospitals to be able to take our patients. With the virus, you don't know where you are today. You know where you were two weeks ago.

    If we had a cluster of cases here in this county right now, 30, 40 people who are very ill, it could be very difficult for us to deal with.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Sublette County Commissioner Chair Dr. David Burnett cautions that these towns are not bubbles.

  • David Burnett:

    Even though we're small, we're isolated and we're rural, we still have a lot of traffic through this area. We're impacted by seasonal workers. We have the oil field community that brings in people from the outside.

    We're on the map in terms of visitors wanting to come into our county.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Nearby in Eastern Idaho, Rigby Mayor Jason Richardson argues the one-size-fits-all state order doesn't work.

  • Jason Richardson:

    We have some pretty clear that, in all of Southeast Idaho, we haven't had any deaths.

    In our county, we have had four cases. We don't face the same thing they face over in Boise or in Blaine County here, where we don't have that community spread that you're seeing there.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Richardson says the closure of nonessential businesses in Rigby, the principal town in the county, has devastated people's finances.

  • Jason Richardson:

    What I hear outside the news are stories about families that aren't able to make their payments for their car insurance, their health insurance, their mortgages. Those difficulties pile up, and they become just as dangerous and fearful as the pandemic itself.

  • Juan Hernandez:

    We're ready to open any time.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    From his empty Mexican restaurant near Idaho Falls, Juan Hernandez says he and his wife have lost 75 percent of their business and should be able to welcome customers, now that they have taken necessary measures.

  • Juan Hernandez:

    We can take tables out, so we can separate it, to show the people that they don't have to be close to each other. So, we do a lot more cleaning. We use gloves, we use masks to show the people that we are clean.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But some Idaho residents are unsure.

  • Kassandra Johnson:

    I'm cautious, but not paranoid. I think we're kind of doomed almost for a second go-round if we open up and get too close too quick.

  • Joanna Thompson:

    I don't know if I'd be comfortable, because I'm kind of at a high risk, with diabetes and a couple other autoimmune disorders.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Montana, there have been no known COVID-19 cases in nearly half of the state's 56 counties, officials say, in part because Governor Steve Bullock started shutting down businesses a week after the first cases cropped up.

    With only a million people spread out across a state three times the size of New York, many residents outside the main cities are already pretty isolated.

  • Mark Williams:

    Our curve, our projected surge was effectively flat.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Mark Williams is chief physician officer for Bozeman Health and was involved in the state task force that evaluated stay-at-home directives and phased reopening.

  • Mark Williams:

    When you look at Eastern Montana, I think those counties have not seen a single case.

    So two, three weeks ago, when it became very obvious that the health care facilities in Montana would be able to maintain or be able to take care of a surge, then it became much more logical and reasonable to talk about reopening businesses in a phased fashion, especially in those areas which hadn't seen a single case.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Is there a warning that should go along with that as well?

  • Mark Williams:

    We have to avoid that false sense of security. In 1918, Montana was ravaged by the Spanish Influenza. If we can reflect back on how similar epidemics have affected rural communities, then the story or the risk can become very clear, because, in those rural communities, even if the likelihood of an outbreak is less, the access to health care resources is also less.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But Dr. Williams admits that while saving lives is paramount, for many, so is saving livelihoods.

  • Mark Williams:

    Just recognize that, when people are wanting to reopen their business, they're doing it for very good reasons.

    I think, if we can all get on the same page and try to understand where we each are situated, those conversations become much easier. It's a matter of honesty and transparency.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Wisdom that could be applied across the country, divided by the pandemic.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

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