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‘Everybody sticks together’ in Garfield County, but they’ve stayed apart enough to reopen without a virus case

By Maggie Quinlan For The Spokesman-Review

POMEROY, Wash. – At first glance, not much has changed in Garfield County since 1910.

The county seat of Pomeroy is home to 1,400 people, and the town’s mile-long main street is fronted with turn-of-the-century buildings and bookended by grain silos.

The town’s population skews older and quite a few residents live in the local nursing home.

Despite what might seem like a vulnerability during a pandemic, Pomeroy may have cracked the code to keeping out the coronavirus.

Pomeroy is the largest city in Washington’s only county with zero confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“We’re still going down here,” said Tom Meyers, owner of Meyers Fine and Unique Merchandise. “A lot of it’s luck.”

But luck’s not all. People have been following the rules, reducing travel and embracing a culture of relative isolation, Meyers said.

“I think it’s just a different way of life down here in the rural setting. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad compared to other places,” said Jayd Keener, co-CEO of Garfield County Hospital District. “It’s nothing for people here to go two weeks without going to a grocery store. Their freezers are stocked, their pantries are stocked. … People already do distancing anyway.”

Risk in Garfield County seems to be low because of the population’s sprawl, said Brad Gingrich, pharmacist and owner of Pomeroy Pharmacy. But its citizens are still suffering from regulations designed for the masses in urban Washington.

As of March, Garfield County’s unemployment rate rose to 6% while King County’s rose to 5.4%, yet the difference in confirmed virus cases is staggering – 7,200 to none.

“I don’t know about the West Side, I don’t want to know about the West Side – but I know where the population masses are, that’s where the problems are,” Gingrich said. “There should be, I think, a little bit more consideration taken for the different population masses.”

As of Thursday, Garfield County has tested 27 sick people. All results have come back negative.

Some of the tested locals showed signs of COVID-19 infection, and others were tested for unrelated symptoms, just to be sure.

But if COVID-19 did take root in the rural community, its critical access hospital is prepared with 25 beds ready to go for in-patients, plus an extension for eight more if they need them, Keener said. By comparison, Whitman County hospitals serve nearly 22 times as many people with only twice as many in-patient beds.

Garfield’s medical staff is sufficient, too, though everyone at Garfield’s hospital wears many hats. Keener doubles as director of nursing and works the floor some days. Her co-CEO is the hospital’s sole physical therapist. But they have a surge staffing plan in place.

Thanks to always running lean financially, Keener said the hospital hasn’t had to make the pay cuts and furloughs many surrounding hospitals have.

But stay-home orders haven’t been easy, especially the limits on patients’ visitors. Staff have been creative with Zoom calls, window visits and outside visits during which families chat with loved ones from a distance. For dying patients, staff do what they can to get families in a safe area where they can say goodbye.

“It’s frustrating for the patients,” Keener said. “Some understand and some of them don’t.”

Three minutes down the road from the hospital, Kristin Hatala, owner of Alibi Tavern, faces her own frustrations.

She tries not to read the news too much. Her friend in another county came down with coronavirus and said he was still chopping wood every day. Hatala said she’d rather not get worked up unless something hits close to home.

But shutdowns struck hard. Her second job as a school bus driver usually brings in more money during this season, as she drives students on long journeys to out-of-town sporting events. That’s gone.

“I run a bar, and there goes the alcohol,” Hatala said. “That’s over half of my sales and in that aspect, it’s been pretty traumatic.”

As the county moves into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan, Alibi will be permitted to run at less than 50% capacity, but that could lead to financial ruin for Hatala.

The cost of reopening just to slip back into Phase 1 would devastate her. Once she taps her beer, for example, it will start to go bad.

“If I had to close again, I don’t know if I could recover from it,” Hatala said.

So she’s planning to wait three weeks into Phase 2 before Alibi opens back up.

In the meantime, her community has done what it can to keep her business afloat. One man has been coming in regularly to buy lunch for either himself or his daughter and then heads to another restaurant for his second order. He wants both to succeed, Hatala said.

At Meyers’ hardware store, he’s actually seen a surge in business. Locals have been getting to work on “pandemic projects,” he said. And while Pomeroy residents normally stock up on groceries in the Lewiston-Clarkston valley, many have been wary of traveling to crowded places, so they’ve have moved their spending dollars to local spots.

Perhaps most important, people are making a larger effort to support their local business owners.

“Pomeroy’s just a good, close-knit, tight community,” Meyers said. “Everybody supports everybody, and everybody sticks together.”