For small towns with small workforces, omicron means small margins for error
By Jill Cowan
In Marvell, Arkansas, a tiny Mississippi Delta town of 855 residents tucked into a sea of cotton, soybean and corn fields, Lee Guest is a particularly essential essential worker.
He is the mayor and the assistant fire chief, and his day job is as a rural mail carrier. If the four employees of the local water utility don’t show up, he knows enough about the system to keep the water flowing, too.
“There’s a handful of us — we can go get stuff taken care of,” he said.
So when he was away from work for a week after contracting COVID-19 at the beginning of the year, the worn engine of small-town governance and administration in Marvell, about a 90-minute drive southwest of Memphis, Tennessee, sputtered and coughed, but it chugged on.
Out of 13 full-time and 11 part-time employees, six have gotten COVID-19. One, who went to a hospital but wasn’t admitted, got sick in 2020. The rest have tested positive in the past three weeks.
It’s a familiar story in small towns across the country, where the spike in infections from the omicron variant hit local governments with particular force. The virus has ripped through big cities like Los Angeles and New York, sidelining thousands of police officers and transit operators. In many, leaders have rushed to reassure residents that firefighters and paramedics will show up when they call amid record absences.
But in small communities, the people responsible for keeping crucial public services up and running say the strain is acute: With bare-bones workforces already stretched thin, there is no margin for error when multiple workers have to call in sick.
“Small as we are, if we get one phone call, that can cause a ripple,” said Sean Pederson, city manager of Bonner Springs, Kansas, a community of about 7,800 residents some 20 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri.
Pederson said he has found himself mopping floors during the pandemic when City Hall janitors were out with the virus. Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, a snowstorm blanketed the region. With multiple employees out on the city’s public works staff, other departments scrambled to find workers to plow the streets.
Verden, Oklahoma, population 508, narrowly avoided having to cancel a Town Council meeting for lack of a quorum earlier this month. Three of five council members had been sick or in quarantine, and Oklahoma had ended the state of emergency that allowed for remote meetings, said Tessa Upton, the town clerk.
Upton, who is one of two people who works in the main office at Town Hall, said she has asked residents to drop their water bill payments through a slot in the door, largely to protect the town’s utility billing clerk. If residents must come in, she said, they’ve been asked to wear masks — a request often ignored by the residents of the town in Grady County, where just 36% of the population is fully vaccinated.
“We’re trying to stay safe in here,” she said. “If we go down, we’re not going to have water.”
The stresses are the effects of short-term pandemic crises piled on top of demographic trends that have played out over decades as work has disappeared in industries like agriculture and manufacturing, and young people leave for better opportunities elsewhere.
“Longer term, we’ve seen really strong economic challenges in rural America as the urban-rural divide has expanded,” said Brooks Rainwater, director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. The pandemic, he said, has compounded those issues by exacerbating existing labor shortages, making it tougher for small municipal agencies to quickly staff up if people are sick or decide to leave.
“Rural governments are small by design,” he said.
The pandemic has disrupted more than local government in Marvell.
Matthew Catlett, owner of three auto and agricultural supply stores in Marvell and the surrounding area, said that in the early days of shutdowns, farmers and residents were able to take on projects that they had been putting off, which translated into more business.
But now, amid the omicron-driven surge, Catlett said he is starting to feel a pinch in new ways. Supply chain problems have caused backups and shortages in everything from microchips and car parts to Pepsi products. An outbreak in Memphis has snarled deliveries.
He has had trouble recruiting workers before the busy season for farmers, which starts in March, and he is concerned that new surges of infection are in the future.
“We need to get more people in here in case something like that does happen,” he said.
Bennie Daniels Jr., the town’s police chief, said the department was already understaffed when he came down with COVID-19 a few days after the mayor tested positive. The department would have as many as four full-time officers and eight part-time if it were fully staffed, but right now, there is half that.
Daniels has picked up night shifts to help relieve other staff members. He conducts traffic stops, responds to calls about fights involving juveniles and does whatever else is needed.
“I do everything my guys do, of course,” he said.
Daniels said that everyone in the department is vaccinated and that he didn’t encounter much pushback.
Still, the town has not been immune from the political divisions and misinformation around the pandemic that have afflicted communities of all sizes. Guest, the mayor, said the backlash against encouraging residents to get vaccinated prompted him to quit Facebook for a while.
“I’m getting chewed out by people I grew up with,” said Guest, a lifelong resident who describes his ascent to the city’s top job almost like he was drafted. “There are times where I just want to be a mailman.”