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Opinion A plea from rural America: Urban covid-19 refugees, please stay home

Three Rivers Hospital in rural Washington state doesn’t have any coronavirus patients yet, but the outbreak has put the facility in financial straits. (Video: Tim Matsui/The Washington Post)
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David Yamamoto is a county commissioner of Tillamook County, Ore.

On the windswept northern Oregon coast sits idyllic Tillamook County. Established in 1853, population 26,000, we’ve long earned our living off the land — timber, fishing and farming, especially dairy. In fact, Tillamook has more cows than people, and our famous cheese is an international brand.

Our proximity to Portland has made us the playground for the major population centers of the Pacific Northwest. Tourism is increasingly the other pillar of our economy, a welcome development for our hospitality and recreation businesses — and, usually, the whole county.

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Until the coronavirus struck. As a county commissioner, I and other local officials have a duty to do everything in our power to keep the number of coronavirus cases in Tillamook as low as possible. But many residents of Portland and the region’s other cities don’t seem to share our priorities.

Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown (D), has issued an executive order mandating that all Oregonians, to the extent possible, stay inside their homes. Outdoor activity where people cannot remain six feet apart is prohibited. We were therefore dumbfounded last weekend to see our beaches overrun with non-local visitors, and especially to see so many license plates from Washington and California, which have similar limitations on movement and much higher infection rates than Oregon.

The crowds were like the Fourth of July, when our population can quintuple. Thousands of urban visitors descended on our villages, with cars lined up for miles on highways to the coast. Once here, the out-of-towners swarmed our grocery stores and cleared the shelves. Unlike in America’s cities and suburbs, we don’t have Grubhub or FreshDirect or Whole Foods delivery (or a Whole Foods, for that matter). Some towns in Tillamook County don’t have any grocers at all. If our local stores get cleared out, there’s nothing left for us to eat. In the beach town of Manzanita, a grocery contemplated closing down Sunday — to the detriment of its bottom line — in order to have something left to feed the locals on Monday.

The other thing we don’t have a lot of in Tillamook is health-care infrastructure. Our county has an inordinate number of retirees and other vulnerable citizens. Our only hospital, Adventist Health Tillamook, is a 25-bed critical access hospital with just three ICU beds. Supplies of tests, respirators, gloves, masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment are limited.

This is why, when outside visitors arrived en masse, our local residents were infuriated. The county commissioners were inundated with calls, emails and texts with photos of the crowds swarming on our beaches and roadsides. Some of our local lodging providers had to close their doors immediately out of concern for their employees. Social media lit up, and tensions ran high.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued a statewide stay-at-home order starting March 20. In Los Angeles, beaches are already empty. (Video: David Byars, Nicholas Weissman/The Washington Post)

In response, we decided to close all county, state and federal parks within Tillamook County. Oregon beaches are public, so we couldn’t close those. But we did close all parking lots and access points. We shut down all county public boat launches as well as motels, hotels, short-term vacation rentals, bed and breakfasts, and RV parks. We then dispatched the county sheriff to show we were serious. The message we wanted to send was clear: In Tillamook County, the health of our citizens comes first.

This response may be difficult for people in other parts of the country to understand. But Tillamook County is not alone. Reports are emerging from small towns across the country that have been flooded with people seeking a respite from their urban confinement or fleeing covid-19 hot spots. In Penobscot Bay, Maine, the tiny island of North Haven closed itself off to all nonresidents. In parts of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, people who own second homes can now access their properties only under “extreme circumstances.” Near Mammoth Lakes, Calif., the tensions between locals and outsiders have gotten so bad that one of the county supervisors said recently she’s worried that “someone is going to get shot.”

Nor does our concern seem unjustified. This past week, the White House coronavirus task force asked everyone who’s recently left New York City to self-quarantine for 14 days after new infections started appearing in the Hamptons and other popular refuges in the area. The spread has made Long Island locals so angry that one suggested small-town residents should “blow up the bridges.”

Our country’s urban-rural divide is real. Remote areas like Tillamook provide much of the food and fiber that sustain America’s cities — yet we are often met with indifference and disdain. The coronavirus has brought these tensions into sharp relief. When government authorities tell people to stay home, what prompts them to think they should head to the beach? Is it that urbanites think the lives of people living in their rural playgrounds somehow matter less than their own?

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When this unprecedented public health crisis is over, we will welcome back tourists, and life can return to normal. Perhaps, with a newfound appreciation of the challenges rural areas face, our urban visitors will even enjoy our communities more. But if those communities are decimated — if we lose our elders, our parents and grandparents, and our beloved friends and neighbors because we failed to act — it will be a devastation we can never overcome.

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