As tensions rise alongside the number of cases of the coronavirus, people have been fleeing from their homes in the larger cities and funneling into the more rural areas of the country at an alarming rate. According to the government’s 2010 Census data, my hometown of Cashiers, North Carolina, only had 157 full-time residents. This number is slightly low due to inaccuracies in counting and the data being out of date, but current reports state that we are still less than 2,000 in 2020. We rely heavily on the tourist industry during the summer and fall months to sustain our local economy, and the beautiful natural vistas such as Panthertown Valley, Gorges State Park, and Whiteside Mountain attract outdoor enthusiasts of every variety to our small mountain town. During these peak months the population explodes exponentially as country clubs, hotels, vacation cabins, and campgrounds fill with visitors who many of us strive to provide accommodations for.
Doing Harm to Small-Town America
Now some of those same people are returning despite warnings from the WHO, the CDC, and even trail organizations such as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to avoid traveling during these times. Cases of COVID-19 have appeared both in Jackson County (see photo of press release posted on 3/23), where I live, and in Macon County just a short drive away. These cases share one painful similarity: they were both detected in people who fled to the mountains.
Why You Shouldn’t Run for the Hills
The first thought for many people when they heard the coronavirus was beginning to creep across the nation was that they would be safe in rural areas. Being that I was a hiker who had to give up my hopes of completing the Appalachian Trail this year, I certainly struggled with letting that idea go once the ATC sent thru-hikers an email explaining how our hikes may have negative impacts on the mountain communities we may pass through. The fact of the matter is that smaller towns don’t have the medical infrastructure to handle an outbreak. Were I or my fellow hikers to accidentally carry the virus into any of the Appalachian Trail’s support towns, we may very well endanger those who call those places home. Put simply: This isn’t about us, it is about those we may affect.
Downtown Cashiers’ Village Green. Source
Many people have heard this argument by now, and if not you can get it in full from me here, but its implications far exceed the hiking community. Travelers of every variety place the communities they pass through at risk for infection, and what may be worse is the very communities they risk passing COVID-19 along to would be the same places that would have to deal with treating those carrying the virus. The rural town you took refuge in would be the same people tasked with treating your symptoms or transporting victims to areas better equipped to fight the virus, i.e. places that already have the virus. Transport or treatment would mean more people coming into contact with the virus, and in turn mean more cases of the virus infecting the local population.
What Should We Do?
I am not a doctor. I do not study infectious diseases nor have I been tasked with treating those who have been infected by them. I am a hiker, a writer, and a humanitarian, so please do your own research on what you believe you should do. With that being said, I believe the current measures of practicing personal hygiene, physically distancing ourselves from one another, and remaining home as often as possible seem like perfectly reasonable strategies. One of my fellow hikers has family in the medical field, and they have been pleased with this article and urged me to read it. This piece has a lot of numbers, and so I have decided to list some other, more easily digestible suggestions from various respected organizations below.
As for what I feel inclined to ask of all of you—please, please do not place rural America at an even greater risk. Many places like the one I call home do not have the means to fight off an outbreak. We would certainly need to call upon those already fighting this war with COVID-19 to assist us should the number of cases rise locally. The larger hospitals are already being bogged down with testing and treatment, and the hope that they would be able to provide the additional support needed to stave this off seems unlikely. I will be staying home until opportunities for me to be of use to the public arise, and it is my belief that this is the best course of action.