- So far, Virginia’s Northern Neck peninsula has largely been spared from COVID-19, but its rural and working-class residents fear the worst is ahead.
- This is a region where support for President Trump has been strong. Yet that could be changing, especially among the marina workers bracing for economic devastation.
- “Everyone is just hunkering down trying to survive,” Mike Oesterling, the executive director of the trade organisation Shellfish Growers of Virginia, said.
- Jeff Neumann is a writer in Virginia.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In a rural corner of eastern Virginia, COVID-19 has not yet fully arrived.
One by one in the early-morning hours, oyster boats, barges, and commercial fishing vessels fan out from the marinas into Chesapeake Bay. Trucks hauling livestock feed and lumber roll on. Construction continues on a sprawling entertainment centre set to open this spring in Irvington, a town in the Northern Neck peninsula. It will include an arcade, go-kart track, and movie theatre.
Wedged between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers to the north and south and the Chesapeake Bay to the east, the peninsula is dotted by small towns, sprawling farms, boathouses, and docks; its top industries include seafood and grain production. Though Virginia has in recent years shifted into a reliably Democratic state, the Northern Neck has remained solid Trump country: In Northumberland County, the president beat Hillary Clinton by nearly 10 points in 2016. Trump-Pence campaign yard signs and flags from that election still dotted along roads here a year ago. Letters to the editor in local papers argued for the need for Second Amendment sanctuary cities and slammed any number of Democratic “hoaxes” perpetrated against the president.
Now, just over seven months from the general election, those yard signs have largely disappeared. A recent letter to the editor printed in the Northern Neck News, a local newspaper, read, “Nothing has highlighted Trump’s ineptness to lead more than the current crisis.” Another in the Rappahannock Record accused the president of “sleepwalking” and being “tone-deaf” in his response to the global health crisis.
To date, the Northern Neck has reported five cases of COVID-19. Among some locals, you can feel a sense of dread as the novel coronavirus ripples out from population centres in Maryland and Virginia into the peninsula.
In recent weeks, I visited the waterfront to check in with the watermen I know from my days working in the oyster industry. Once, many of these marine welders, farmers, and store clerks were among President Trump’s most loyal followers. But now they have shifted from true believers into flipped votes.
Fearing backlash from their employers and neighbours, the dozen seafood and agriculture workers I spoke with asked not to be identified in this article. While they may not yet speak for a majority here, an increasing number of their fellow Northern Neckers are coming around to their view of Trump.
“A few weeks ago I could ignore the parts of his personality I didn’t like,” Cliff, a 25-year Chesapeake Bay waterman, told me. “That’s over. I don’t believe anything he’s saying now.”
On the waterfront
Leaning against a pickup truck after an all-day shift on the water, Matt, a third-generation Chesapeake Bay oysterman and former Trump supporter in his mid-40s, took a long drag on his cigarette. “He’s got no idea what the hell he’s doing, and I think he’s flat out lying to everyone about how bad it really is, and how bad it’s going to get,” he said.
Matt said he believes Trump initially played down just how bad the infection and death rate would be, while contradicting the advice of his own experts and guidelines from the federal government. Dismissing expertise and basic science is, of course, a tenet of the “Make America Great Again” faithful. But that tactic now seems to be backfiring in the Northern Neck.
People like Matt have heard medical experts speaking frankly about the crisis on the nightly news, often at odds with what the president says. A recent Centres for Disease Control mailer, titled “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America,” was widely mocked among locals here as nothing more than flimsy campaign propaganda – government instructions to help prevent the virus’ spread that Trump himself seems to undermine.
Matt told me he has always disagreed with Trump’s attacks on immigrants. “A lot of the guys in shucking houses around here are Hispanic migrants and they’re really good guys. Hard-working guys.” But through it all, from the Muslim ban to impeachment, he stuck with him.
Now, the trust is gone.
“He thinks we’re all stupid and will show up for him no matter what,” he said. “At this point, I can’t imagine bringing myself to do that.”
Half measures and full measures
On March 30, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s governor, enacted a stay-at-home order, which requires people to stay at home except for trips to buy essentials such as food and medicine, or in some cases to travel to work. But folks across the Northern Neck have interpreted that directive loosely.
At the Tri-Star market in Kilmarnock, a town on the southern end of the peninsula, baggers still carried groceries out to customers’ cars. Employees wore no protective gear. Lone gas-station attendants didn’t wear gloves, despite interacting with a steady stream of customers. The Lancaster Community Library was closed until further notice, but a sign posted on the front door included the Wi-Fi password and encouraged anyone to use it from the parking lot. The nearby Walmart remained well stocked, except for toilet paper, meat, shotgun shells, and rifle ammunition.
Local governments had closed town halls and other official buildings to the public. Election authorities announced plans to conduct upcoming municipal elections by mail-in ballot. Just south of Kilmarnock, the town council of White Stone held its most recent meeting in a parking lot at the town’s main intersection. Some churches have held drive-in Sunday services outdoors. The sign out front of Trinity Episcopal Church in Lancaster, a 15-minute drive north of White Stone read, “Sunday Services Cancelled – Pray & Care for Others.”
Of late, the Northumberland County Republican Committee has kept a low profile. But the party here remains in lockstep with the Trump administration’s messaging. Beneath an image of Trump and the first lady riding a motorcycle past adoring fans in front of the Capitol, the committee’s website notes that the 2020 Virginia GOP Convention is “POSTPONED DUE TO WUHAN VIRUS.”
When the pandemic arrives in full force, the region will surely need outside help.
About 23,000 people live in Northumberland and Lancaster counties. The closest large-capacity hospitals are in Richmond, 70 miles away. Virginia has 2.1 hospital beds per 1,000 people, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The mayor’s office in Colonial Beach, one of the Northern Neck’s main towns, did not respond to a request for comment about the area’s preparedness.
The only hospital serving the peninsula is Rappahannock General, a single-story brick building in Kilmarnock that more resembles a small-town elementary school than a healthcare facility. Rappahannock General has 75 staffed beds, 58 of which are meant for “routine services” like ordinary surgeries. The Kilmarnock Volunteer Rescue Squad keeps four ambulances in its bays.
The administrator for Rappahannock General Hospital did not respond to a request for comment.
‘We need a guy like Cuomo’
For the marina workers the coming months will be a struggle.
A commercial fisherman on the Chesapeake can make, on average, anywhere from $US30,000 to $US60,000 depending on where they operate and how much they bring in. Small and large oyster growers’ salaries depend on several factors, including market prices for shellfish and supply versus demand, all of which will take a hit as restaurants close or reduce operations and distributors buy far less product.
With many restaurants closed or only operating for take-out orders, oyster farms are “taking it on the nose,” Mike Oesterling, the executive director of Shellfish Growers of Virginia, a trade organisation, told me. “Right now, everyone is just hunkering down trying to survive,” he said.
Seafood restaurants along the East Coast have largely shut down with no timetable for a return to business. And since direct sales to consumers account for only a fraction of seasonal sales, any extended closure of restaurants will likely cripple many small businesses. Lee’s Restaurant, in business in Kilmarnock for over 80 years, offers take-out only. The weekly Rotary Club breakfast held there is on hold indefinitely.
The tourist season begins soon, and that yearly infusion of money for local businesses will likely dry up for at least part of the summer, or maybe longer. But for now, some boats still set off in the mornings, and the grain elevators continue to hum. The federal government has earmarked some $US300 million of the new stimulus package for the fishing and aquaculture industries. But the paperwork process required to receive it has been “mind-blowing,” Oesterling said.
Luis, a Honduran man in his mid-30s who works as a line shucker for a local seafood supplier, said he’s worried about restaurant closures killing the oyster industry. The several hundred dollars he sends home every month is now in doubt as both the supply and retail sides of the industry take stock of the worsening business climate.
With each passing day, more small businesses shutter indefinitely. Meanwhile, frustration with the Trump administration’s handling of the health crisis grows.
“We need a guy like Cuomo handling this for the whole country,” Matt said, adding that he catches up on the New York governor’s daily press conferences on Facebook after finishing work. “It’s really bad up there, and he’s being honest with people.”