“I don’t think Mr. Leon’s doing too well,” he said quietly.
A man walking by looked up.
“He’s had a rough go of it?”
“I think so.”
For eight months, the 450 residents of Tangier Island were spared a single case of coronavirus. Now Leon McMann, 89, a Tangier resident who had still been working on his boat the previous winter, was sick. So were many others.
McMann’s daughter and his son-in-law, Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. The physician assistant who runs the island’s sole health clinic. Her husband. School teachers, church elders. Thomas’s grandparents. The young and the old.
Over the centuries, Tangier, separated by 12 miles of water from the mainland, has preserved a unique and quirky heritage. Its residents — conservative, religious and intensely social —speak in a maritime brogue that confounds the ears of outsiders. They are simultaneously threatened by and skeptical of climate change, which scientists say could make the island uninhabitable within the next five decades. Most are fiercely devoted to President Trump, who called Tangier’s mayor to tell him not to worry about rising sea levels.
But they are also fiercely devoted to one another. And after the first infections appeared around Thanksgiving, the islanders reacted in a way that once again sets them apart — and that few would have predicted based on their politics.
Across the United States, the pandemic has divided people. Here it has united them. As Americans elsewhere argue over mask mandates, business closures and vaccines, Tangier has carried out a lockdown stricter than those in many large liberal cities. Face coverings are not only required in public spaces indoors; their use outdoors is widespread.
Despite their support for a president who has flouted the guidance of public-health experts, Tangier residents have achieved what many communities have not: voluntary and near-universal adherence to social distancing guidelines. The island’s one school and two churches have closed, as have most businesses.
Those measures were urgently needed.
On the Friday that the Courtney Thomas docked, Tangier had reported 21 infections out of 71 tests administered, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That gives the island a positivity rate in recent weeks of about 30 percent — nearly triple the current figure for the United States and six times the danger threshold set by the World Health Organization. And it is probably an underestimate. Some islanders who have self-quarantined with the symptoms of covid-19 were never tested.
On a 700-acre area of land where many people share the same last names — and even trace their lineage to a single 18th-century settler — virtually no one has been untouched. As she hurried off the Courtney Thomas carrying poinsettias, native islander Fern Tyler paused when a reporter asked if she knew anyone with covid-19.
Her puzzlement was apparent through her dark cloth mask.
“I know everybody,” she said.
The virus was probably abetted by Tangier’s close ties of kinship and history. But those ties have also given the island its best chance at stopping covid-19′s spread, as residents do everything they can to save the lives of neighbors who are, in many cases, lifelong friends or blood relatives.
“That’s a big part of it. You know the people, and you know the family,” Eskridge said in a phone interview from his home, where the mayor had quarantined himself as he endured bouts of mild fever. “And you’re trying to protect them.”
The question is whether, for those such as Eskridge’s father-in-law, that protection would come too late.
‘It’s not going to get here’
The sun had dipped below the horizon beyond West Ridge Road, but 73-year-old Reta Pruitt was still hanging Christmas lights around a rowboat.
She wore a surgical mask.
“I’m really quarantined, but they told me it would be okay if I was out here to decorate,” Pruitt said as she studied the props she had erected — including a cross, a manger scene, two snowman figures and a couple of reindeer — at the edge of Tangier Island’s southern marshes. She said her granddaughter had recently tested positive for the coronavirus after being in her home. Pruitt had been in quarantine for a week, although so far she was experiencing no symptoms.
Nobody else was in sight. Social life on the island, which typically continues through the cold months when tourists stay away, had all but disappeared. Most left their homes only for the post office, the grocery store or their boats.
“They’re taking it serious now. But that’s the whole trouble: The first time, we weren’t serious about it,” Pruitt said, recalling the lax attitude toward masks and social distancing a few weeks earlier. “I guess we just thought we were isolated. It was like, ‘It’s not going to get here.’ But it got here. It got here full force.”
Tangier’s experience — like that of other isolated places where the pandemic only recently gained a foothold — is a measure of the coronavirus’s conquest. More than 2,500 deaths and 200,000 new cases are being reported in the United States each day. A virus once confined to urban hubs such as New York City has spread across the deserts of Arizona and the tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.
Theories of how the virus made its way onto the island are based not on contact tracing, but on an insular town’s rumor and speculation. After a busy summer with many tourists, no one can say for sure how the pandemic reached Tangier at the quietest time of year. But there is broader agreement on where the virus, once it was on the island, began to spread.
“We all got it down at the church,” said 69-year-old Barry Parks, whose wife, Joan, was among the first confirmed cases on Tangier. (Parks also became sick, though not as seriously as his wife. Both have recovered.)
Some 80 to 100 worshipers gathered on the Sunday before Thanksgiving at the New Testament Church, according to Duane Crockett, one of the church elders. The group was enforcing some social distancing protocols, but adherence was mixed, as was mask use.
“I don’t know where it really started," Crockett said. “But that’s probably a place that it did spread.”
Symptomatic infections began to pop up, and by the following weekend, the island was locking down. Crockett, a 42-year-old history teacher at the now-closed Tangier Combined School, began to feel body aches at night. He tested positive for the coronavirus. So did another church member, Inez Pruitt — a physician assistant who is the most highly trained medical practitioner at Tangier’s only clinic — and her husband.
Pruitt said the virus was going to reach the island eventually and could have spread as easily at the post office or grocery store as at church. She said she believes the coronavirus is a Chinese biological weapon — a conspiracy theory rejected by scientists and U.S. intelligence experts — and is skeptical that containment measures will do more than delay the inevitable.
“It’s going to happen. It’s going to spread," she said. “No matter how much we shut down, it’s still going to spread.”
Most of those infected on the island, she added, have fared well. “Ninety-nine percent of the people are fine,” she said. “It’s like having the flu.”
But among those at New Testament on the Sunday before Thanksgiving was one person who would not be fine: Leon McMann.
‘He doesn’t want to leave’
McMann made his living in the traditional way of the island, with his crab scrape and oyster dredge. Into his late 80s he could be seen on his boat, the Betty Jane, braving pitching seas and frigid weather. No waterman on Tangier had been at work longer, and he occupied a distinctive place in the island’s community, said Earl Swift, author of “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island.”
“He was incredibly tough, but he wore it very lightly,” Swift said. “Leon got unbridled love, and I think it’s just because he was seen as kind of the ranking elder on the water.”
McMann was among the first people on Tangier to become sick. Three weeks after the New Testament church service, his recurrent fever was spiking to 104. As it became clear that his grit might not be enough to see him through covid-19, there was talk of taking him to a hospital on the mainland.
But McMann knew that he would be separated from his family in an intensive care unit, and after nine decades on Tangier — six of them spent with his wife, Betty, who died in 2011 — he couldn’t stand the thought of spending his final days alone. His daughters did their best to care for him in his home.
“He doesn’t want to leave,” Eskridge said in an interview while his father-in-law battled the disease.
Had he decided otherwise, McMann would have joined more than 100,000 other Americans hospitalized in mid-December with covid-19. Trump had just lost the presidential election. During the campaign, his administration’s mismanaging of the pandemic response was front and center. On Tangier Island, the Keep America Great flags still flap in the wind off the bay over deserted streets and closed restaurants. Residents have mixed feelings about the president’s handling of the coronavirus.
Edna Brown, 78, was at the island’s small grocery store — where masks are now required, and a limit of 10 customers at a time is observed — on a recent Saturday morning. She said Trump had not done enough to be a model of the behaviors others should adopt to quell the spread of the virus. She wondered whether he had gotten bad advice from those around him.
“For me, he can’t do no wrong,” she said at last. “I think he did the best he could.”
Even the mayor, who said on CNN in 2017 that “I love Trump as much as any family member I got,” hesitated when asked to assess the president’s coronavirus record.
“I don’t know. I know how President Trump is. He’s …" Eskridge trailed off. “I don’t know. Maybe he got a little relaxed. Like we did. I don’t know.”
As cases and deaths continued to climb nationwide, it appeared that the self-imposed lockdown on Tangier could be having an effect. On Dec. 17, the island had gone almost a week without reporting a new infection to state officials.
The same day, McMann died.
The people of Tangier Island began to grieve, but not together. The virus wasn’t beaten. A memorial service, McMann’s family decided, would not be safe to hold until the spring.
John D. Harden contributed to this report.