Melinda Henneberger: In rural Kansas, coronavirus sparks a grim argument over lives versus livelihoods

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On Main Street in Hays, Kan., mayor and bar owner Shaun Musil has already laid off most of his staff and is still “just trying to stay afloat. I don’t want to go broke, but I’m afraid I’m going to.”

The global coronavirus pandemic hasn’t found Hays just yet, and like much of America, the northwestern Kansas town of 20,000 — where stagecoaches on the old Smoky Hill Trail to Denver used to stop — is not under any special stay-at-home order.

But even limiting gatherings to 10 people, as the CDC has suggested and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has ordered, has made running a place like The Paisley Pear Wine Bar a little contradictory: Come on in, relax, and stay yards away from your friends. “We’ve spread our tables out,” Musil says, and made folks sit at least 6 feet apart.

There has been quite a dramatic partisan divide in the response to this public health crisis, which is really only getting started in our country, and which we have very little time left to wrestle to the ground. Already, President Donald Trump is tired of even this sorta shutdown and is hoping we can all be back to work by Easter. But if that’s what happens, churches will be packed for funerals.

In rural and small-town America, where it is still possible to pretend that half-measures and hope might keep death from the doorstep, decisions about which businesses to close might be even more wrenching because everyone knows everyone else and is acutely aware of what each one stands to lose.

As the argument between saving lives and saving livelihoods becomes more overt, the case that putting dollars first is actually the selfless thing to do is being laid out by extremists such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who thinks older Americans should gladly lay down their lives for Wall Street — or as he put it, for the economic future of their grandchildren.

No word on how those he’s urging to disregard the safety of others might selectively infect those superfluous older Americans without also wiping out some younger people with asthma or diabetes or cancer who even he might agree should be allowed to live.

At a meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission in Wichita, Kan., this week, the lives-versus-livelihood vote was 3-2 in the right direction, after those on the losing end argued in favor of exempting golf courses from a shutdown and insisted that it would really be better to wait and see.

And in Warsaw, Mo., Benton County Sheriff Eric Knox posted a long social media diatribe confusing the shutdown that should be happening and isn’t with the tanks-in-the-street scenario that he says he’d only support if Trump gave him the high sign.

As of now, he said, “You are free to move about, congregate as you see fit and live free as the power of our great Constitution permits.” Until you die, of course.

The far more typical tug of war, though, is the internal one of Hays Mayor Shaun Musil: “I don’t want anybody to die. It’s destroying small business” that so many are staying home. “But I also care about people, maybe too much.”

In Musil vs. Musil, one side is annoyed that while mom-and-pop places like his are empty, “Walmart and Dillons are packed.” The other side is anguished to think of his older customers in particular taking any risks they don’t have to. “I wish I knew the answer.”

To the extent that ordinary Americans look to Trump for guidance, well, his zigging and zagging and cries of “Are we there yet?” after 10 minutes in the car seat are not helping.

“People feel insulated” by the open spaces all around them, said Salina, Kan., Mayor Mike Hoppock. Even though “we’ve tried to tell them. You wonder if it would be better if the federal government required everyone to shut down, instead of state by state, or even worse, city by city.”

I’ve been convinced by what’s happened everywhere else across the globe, and by what epidemiologists say will happen here, too, that it would be far better. But most local and state officials have figured out by now that they’re on their own during a crisis the likes of which no one alive today has ever seen.

Hays is not an outpost for the timid; its history includes dust storms, floods, and in 1895, a fire that consumed 60 businesses.

In some ways, people in rural America are probably better prepared than their urban relatives are to meet what’s coming. Former Kansas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Svaty, who farms in his hometown of Ellsworth, Kan., notes that unlike in New York, isolation in a rural setting is neither shocking nor new.

“My parents live on the farm full time, and the one adjustment to their life is no church,” since their services went online two weeks ago over COVID-19. “I don’t want to say it’s business as usual, but they didn’t do a whole lot of interacting before, so it doesn’t require a huge readjustment” to withdraw.

With a freezer full of meat and even a mailbox that’s “clear down by the highway,” life’s rhythms haven’t been interrupted. “We were building a corral all last week, and this week, too, as soon as the rain clears. Nature is not on quarantine. The Sandhill Cranes are moving through, you’re outside working,” and able to forget what’s happening for minutes at a time.

The demographics of aging rural America are discouraging, though, since this virus preys first on older men. And without easy access to medical care, and very few ICU beds, staying home is really red America’s only weapon.

With all of the hardship that choice would require, and with a socially distant virtual hug for every Shaun Musil in the country, all I can hope is that they’ll use it before it’s too late.



Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.


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