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Rural Missourians adapt amid pandemic

  • 5 min to read
Rural Missourians adapt amid pandemic

Rural Franklin County looks different this spring.

Usually, kids are playing on playgrounds. High schools are preparing for graduation and prom. Families go out to lunch in their Sunday best following church services, garage sales and weddings.

But, much like the rest of the world, life in pockets of rural Missouri has seemingly come to a halt due to COVID-19, even before Gov. Mike Parson issued a statewide stay-at-home order that takes effect Monday.

Tom Kent, the owner of the Tilted Skillet, shows a server

Tom Kent, owner of the Tilted Skillet in Washington, Missouri, shows a server a mask he wants to make from a Blanton’s Whisky bottle bag. The restaurant has been preparing special take-and-bake family meals.

As some local leaders have called for the closure of non-essential businesses and asked people to stay home to prevent further spread of the disease, Missouri small towns have had to adapt.

With access to health care and grocery stores already limited, combined with the independent nature of rural Missourians, COVID-19 poses a unique risk.

Server Chris Sivils takes an order and sends

Server Chris Sivils takes an order and sends it over a two-way radio to the kitchen at the Tilted Skillet on Friday in Washington, Missouri. “We’re maintaining healthy distances and sanitizing everything,” Sivils said about precautions the restaurant is taking.

Not everyone has gotten the message.

In rural areas, where excursions to the nearest store are a common form of community engagement, keeping people home can be a tough sell.

“To get people to understand and to take this seriously is pretty hard,” said Chris Gamm, presiding commissioner of Pike County. “Social distancing … it’s just not a human’s style. We like to hug, handshake and stuff like that.”

Independent by nature

Franklin County is home to about 103,000 people. Most of those people have had to find a new way to carry out their everyday lives while staying home as often as possible. As of Saturday, 24 people had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Lowe's home improvement store in Washington, Missouri, has experienced strong sales in past weeks, according to Union Mayor Rodney Tappe.

Tappe, who works at the store full-time, said he suspects this is because it is one of the only places that allows customers to browse in-store. He said plumbing supplies, paint, flooring and gardening supplies have been disappearing from shelves.

A jogger runs past barriers meant to stop vehicles

A jogger runs past barriers meant to stop vehicles at the entrance to Riverfront Park on Friday in Washington, Missouri. Signs were added to the barriers about keeping social distance in the park and the city's order to close traffic. 

“We have people that come in and bring their families in,” Tappe said.

He said Lowe's has been unable to limit employees because of the number of customers coming through the store on a daily basis.

Chris Sivils, a server at the Tilted Skillet

Chris Sivils, a server at the Tilted Skillet, delivers an order to a waiting car March 3 in Washington, Missouri. 

In Pike County, Gamm said he’s been on the radio asking people to take social distancing seriously. Located north of St. Louis, the county population is roughly 18,000; two positive COVID cases had been reported as of Saturday.

However, many people in his community see grocery shopping as a social and family event.

“They’re very independent. They don’t like being told, ‘No, you can’t do this or do that,’ which is basically everybody in rural areas,” Gamm said.

Missouri was one of the few states in the country to not have a statewide stay-at-home order until last Friday, when Parson announced a mandate that takes effect Monday. Missouri’s diverse rural and urban communities were one of the reasons he waited, according to previous Missourian reporting.

A sign with a number to call for pick ups sits by a bucket

A sign with a number to call for pickups sits by a bucket of book orders on the porch of Neighborhood Reads on Friday in Washington, Missouri. "I feel like we are taking every precaution," said store owner Dawn Kitchell, who was implementing contactless practices before the state wide stay-in-place order was issued Friday. That order begins Monday. 

Several local and county officials passed stay-at-home orders prior to Parson’s announcement, including Pike County on Friday. However, Gamm said that most citizens work in places that are considered essential, including a state prison, factories that produce medical supplies and agriculture locations. Gamm said the employers are doing their best to make accommodations.

In other places around Missouri, there hasn’t been much resistance. St. Francois County, which has a population of around 65,000, passed a stay-at-home order that went into effect Friday. The county has 14 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Saturday.

Presiding Commissioner Harold Gallaher said that although there have been a few complaints since it was announced Monday, the community response to the order has been mostly understanding.

Gallaher said the gap between the approval of the stay-at-home order and the order taking effect was to give people time to adjust. “We wanted to give everyone a chance to prepare, especially the businesses. We’re trying very much to not knock people out of work,” he said.

Jeannie White cleans a used silk screen

Jeannie White cleans a used silk screen after printing shirts at Trophies T's & More on Friday in Union, Missouri. White has worked at the store for 13 years. "I love what I'm doing. I love working for Kristi," White said. 

Facing limited access to key resources

Although parts of rural Missouri may feel insulated from COVID-19, its effects could be felt more acutely than in other places. The lack of immediate access to health care, grocery stores and broadband could exacerbate issues posed by the virus for these communities.

Brett Siefert, the administrator of the Lincoln County Health Department, said that a lot of issues rural areas have are especially magnified during times like these. Lincoln County, which passed a stay-at-home order March 28, had 16 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Saturday.

“When the numbers start climbing ever higher, whatever that peak’s at, it’s going to almost certainly overwhelm available resources,” Siefert said. He said there are concerns with a lack of providers in the area. Additionally, Mercy Hospital, the only one in Lincoln County, has a bed capacity of 25.

Just north, Gamm said he was told only two rooms at Pike County Memorial Hospital in Louisiana could be used to treat COVID-19 patients. If needed, Gamm said they would have to send COVID-19 patients to the St. Louis area, which is over an hour away.

Access to testing in rural areas is also a concern. Mayor Michael Brown of Concordia, in Lafayette County, said the nearest testing center is 27 miles away in Lexington. Concordia’s closest hospital, I-70 Community Hospital in Sweet Springs, closed last year.

In Lafayette County, there had been 26 recorded cases of COVID-19 and one death as of Saturday.

Siefert said that minimal access to healthcare will likely become more of an issue as more people become ill.

“Especially in the rural areas,” he said. “Just because it’s that much more stark, how few beds there actually are in a lot of rural communities.”

Facing uncertainty in business sector

An embroidery machine stitches a wildcat

An embroidery machine stitches a wildcat, the mascot of the Union School District, on Friday at Trophies T's & More. The store does screenprinting, embroidery and builds trophies for schools, businesses and events. 

For small businesses, COVID-19 has forced owners to change how they operate, even causing some to shut down.

Kristi Kee is the owner of Trophies T’s &More, a T-shirt production and graphic design business in Union. Her store has been among the Franklin County businesses still operating Monday through Friday, with a limited number of customers allowed to enter. She has also increased the business’ online store, where customers can make orders.

“We’re just trying to market differently,” Kee said. “We have hardly any foot traffic.”

Owner of Trophies T's & More Kristi Kee, right,

Trophies T's and More owner Kristi Kee, right, speaks with her friend Amy Honzalek from Washington, Missouri, on Friday. "I support everything local. I give back to my community as much as I can," Kee said about her business. Kee became owner of the store three years ago and was a manager for six years before that.

People in the community have bought gift cards to help support her business during the pandemic, she said.

Kee said most of her large orders are from big companies that order for their entire staff.

“Right now, one: everyone is scared to spend any money and two: a lot of companies are not working, so obviously they’re not going to go out and buy new apparel for their employees.”

Currently, all of Kee’s suppliers are still open, so her ability to make product has not changed. However, with schools being closed and other changes in spring activities, the number of orders has decreased.

“My peak season is baseball and softball, and since none of that is happening right now, we’re losing huge money,” Kee said.

Neighborhood Reads owner Dawn Kitchell puts books

Neighborhood Reads owner Dawn Kitchell holds books for an online order to be shipped Friday in Washington, Missouri. “We’re working harder than we were before,” Kitchell said. “Online orders were not a big part of our business before this.”

In Washington, Dawn Kitchell has started contactless options for those who want to purchase books from her store, Neighborhood Reads, called “porch pick-up.”

“We operate out of a historic home downtown, so we have a covered porch, and we have a little bucket out on our porch and if someone wants to pick up their books or whatever they buy from the store, then we package them and leave them out on our porch once they let us know they are on their way,” Kitchell said.

Sami Martin helps package a curbside

Sami Martin helps package a curbside pickup order Friday at Neighborhood Reads in Washington, Missouri. Martin is also a teacher for the Union School District. 

She said they have also started doing home book delivery in the area and also sending books out by mail.

Since COVID-19 has hit Franklin County, Kitchell said they closed their store to the public, but orders aren’t slowing down drastically.

“We’re getting orders from a variety (of) means. They’re calling, they are ordering online, they’re messaging us on Facebook,” she said.

With the statewide stay-at-home mandate beginning Monday, Kitchell said she’ll be shortening her hours to match peak times for online shopping.

‘It’s just amazing to me, day-to-day, how much things change,” she said.

Reporters Colin Willard and Gaby Morera Di Nubila contributed to this report.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Assistant city editor for the public health and safety beat. I am a second year graduate student studying public policy journalism. You can reach me at mne275@umsystem.edu or on Twitter @MikaylaEasley

  • Assistant Director of Community Outreach, summer 2021. Studying news reporting at University of Missouri School of Journalism. Reach me at hayleyvawter@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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