HARLAN, Iowa — It’s a typical weekday morning in this county seat town. Vehicles partially fill the town square that surrounds the majestic Shelby County Courthouse as people walk into shops and restaurants.
It’s a day like any other, except for one very noticeable difference — people are wearing masks.
Welcome to rural America in a pandemic.
“Other than businesses that were mandated to shut down in the early stages of this, most of our businesses have stayed open and are adapting,” says Todd Valline, executive director of the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce & Industry. “We’re very proud of how Harlan and the other communities are doing.”
COVID-19 became a household word in March, when guidelines were put in place to help protect people from contracting the virus. Not long after, industries such as packing plants were temporarily shut down due to employees who become ill from close contact with co-workers.
Schools transitioned to online learning. People began working from home to help curb the spread.
Eight months later, the nation is seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Schools that went back to in-person learning are sending students home again. New guidelines are being issues at the state level.
The virus has changed rural America, perhaps permanently.
“This virus isn’t following any rural or urban line. It’s affecting everyone equally,” says Bill Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council. “We are seeing Main Street impacted by this virus.”
He says COVID-19 is highlighting the need for improved infrastructure in rural America, particularly the need for accessible broadband.
“This was an issue before, but it is really at the forefront now as people work from home more and kids are learning at home,” Menner says. “Without high-speed broadband, it is going to affect how they do things at home. This is something we need to improve.”
Liesl Seabert, rural community revitalization program manager for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, agrees with Menner’s assessment of broadband issues in the state.
She says there are grant programs available to help with improvement, but says much more funding is needed.
“We received $50 million in funding, but we were only able to use $37 million because we could not find contractors to help us use it all before the tight deadline we were under,” Seabert says, adding she is hopeful that money will eventually become available again.
She says the pandemic has forced small businesses to improve their technology, including developing websites.
“A lot of small businesses struggled to move product when this started, but they are learning how to adapt,” Seabert says. “Some have made use of Shop Iowa (www.shopiowa.com), a web site that helps a business be part of an online marketplace.”
Another change has come in the volunteer labor force. Seabert says many volunteers are retired and at the age where they are in the at-risk category for COVID-19. She says programs such as AmeriCorps are helping to fill in where volunteers are needed.
Menner says the pandemic has highlighted potential breaks in the supply chain.
“I’ve talked to some farmers who are worried they won’t get equipment they ordered months ago,” he says.
Menner says while small towns are holding on, it is more difficult for them than it is for a larger city.
“Big cities have a great margin for error when it comes to recovering,” he says. “If a small town is on the edge, it’s going to be more difficult.”
Valline says his community has worked to make sure it is handling businesses during the pandemic. He says local schools “have done a fantastic job” in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases.
“People are wearing masks and doing all they can to minimize spread of the virus,” Valline says. “Our hospital seems to be doing very well with it. Long-term care facilities are probably where we have seen the most suffering because residents are pretty much shut off from their family.”
He says while there has been little mention of new business in his western Iowa county, there have been few business closures as well.
“We talk weekly about what we need to do in four weeks, or what we should be doing in eight weeks,” Valline says. “We recognize that the virus is spreading, and we need to have a plan in place in case it gets worse.”