DUFUR, Ore. (AP) - The social distancing rules repeated like a mantra in Americaâ€™s urban centers, where the coronavirus is spreading exponentially, might seem silly in wide-open places where neighbors live miles apart and â€śworking from homeâ€ť means another day spent branding calves or driving a tractor alone through a field.
But as the pandemic spreads through the U.S., those living in rural areas, too, are increasingly threatened. Tiny towns tucked into Oregonâ€™s windswept plains and cattle ranches miles from anywhere in South Dakota might not have had a single case of the new coronavirus, but their main streets are also empty and their medical clinics overwhelmed by the worried.
Residents from rural Alabama to the woods of Vermont to the frozen reaches of Alaska fear the spread of the disease from outsiders, the social isolation that comes when the townâ€™s only diner closes, and economic collapse in places where jobs were already tough to come by.
â€śNobody knows what to do and theyâ€™re just running in circles, so stay away from me is what Iâ€™m saying,â€ť said Mike Filbin, a 70-year-old cattle rancher in Wasco County, Oregon, one of the few parts of the state that has yet to see a case of COVID-19.
â€śRight now, weâ€™re pretty clean over here, but weâ€™re not immune to nothinâ€™ - and if they start bringing it over, itâ€™ll explode here.â€ť
To make matters worse, some of the most remote communities have limited or no internet access and spotty cellphone service. That makes telecommuting and online learning challenging in an era of blanket school and work closures, and it eliminates the possibility of the FaceTime card games and virtual cocktail hours that urban Americans have turned to in droves to stay connected.
The routine ways that rural Americans connect - a bingo night, stopping in at a local diner or attending a potluck - are suddenly taboo.