PINE CITY, MINN. – Inside the narrow aisles of the 111-year-old local hardware store here, where most everyone knows most everyone else, it feels extra strange for residents to stay 6 feet away from beloved neighbors and friends.
Sometimes, people catch themselves acting outside of pandemic recommendations.
“For a few deals, we still do business on a handshake,” store owner Michael Sauser acknowledged. “Then we go wash our hands.”
As of Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Health, which tracks COVID-19 cases based on where patients live, had yet to identify a positive case in Pine County. But as calls for social distancing become more urgent across the state and country, rural Minnesotans here and elsewhere who once felt more insulated from the virus’ spread have been taking heed of warnings, residents said.
From Warroad to Wabasso, complaints about the pandemic being overblown aren’t vocalized nearly as much lately, community leaders say, and fewer residents and merchants are lamenting the forced shutdown of local businesses and schools. People are doing their best to isolate themselves, for the most part.
Knowing community members by face, if not by name, has meant neighbors looking out for each other even if they’re not necessarily close friends. Volunteers are signing up to fetch and deliver groceries for the elderly or immune-compromised. Residents are ordering takeout from local restaurants, trying to keep them afloat. And clergy are making phone calls to stay in touch with those who are most vulnerable.
“We are trying to check in with everybody,” said Pastor Juanita Parker, who is based in Wabasso and serves four communities that form the Redwood Central Lutheran Parish in Redwood County. “I have a visitation team that is calling all of the shut-ins.”
While there were some who believed the pandemic was overhyped a week or two ago, those voices have grown quieter, she said, especially after a COVID-19 positive case popped up in neighboring Renville County.
“I think our naysayers are starting to get it, that it’s going to get here,” Parker said. “It’s just going to take its time.”
Hard to stay away
In Kittson County in far northwestern Minnesota, which has no known cases, Sheriff Mark Wilwant said most residents are remaining calm while taking the warnings seriously. Traffic across the county has diminished in recent days and he sees fewer people around.
Still, some teenagers recently got together at their homes to play video games, he said, which he found puzzling: “In this day and age, they … sit in the same room and text each other anyway.”
But people are social creatures, and it’s hard for most everyone to stay away from friends and family.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Wilwant said. “And everybody’s used to going to each other’s house and having supper and socializing.”
In Murray County in southwestern Minnesota, where there are no confirmed cases, Chief Deputy Sheriff Heath Landsman said law enforcement officers are sometimes put in awkward situations when they go out on calls and people want to thank them afterward with a handshake.
“We’re just telling people that, look … we’re not trying to be disrespectful, but we’re not going to shake hands at this point,” Landsman said. “Everybody’s kind of staying away from each other as best as they can.”
While residents of small towns can be supportive of each other, some say, on the flip side, someone who gets tested for coronavirus may face scrutiny and relentless efforts by neighbors to trace the illness, despite health privacy laws.
“I’ve heard some rumors [of people tested in Murray County]. ... They’ve been quickly put out by the people that were in question,” Landsman said. “Everybody knows everybody’s everything. ... That’s just the way it is out here.”
While local stores have faced a run on toilet paper and other key goods, many in rural Minnesota who live far from a town are already accustomed to stocking up on supplies and spending large stretches of time without seeing neighbors.
Pine City, home to about 3,000 residents about 70 miles north of the Twin Cities, draws customers from nearby small towns. Sauser, the hardware store owner, said there was a run on chest freezers from people trying to stock up on frozen food.
His store is careful to sanitize and practice safe distancing, he said. And while most everyone is trying to act responsibly, he’s seen attitudes run the gamut, from those staying home and far away from anyone, to others who are trying to live life as normally as possible.
“There is this attitude of some that the good Lord is gonna get you somehow, no matter what you try to do,” Sauser said.
Across the street, Nicoll’s Cafe owner Butch Nicoll is glad to be working in a tight-knit community. He recently added a doorbell to a sliding window he happened to have in the back of his building. It now functions as a takeout window.
Business at his restaurant, which is known for its pancakes, is running about 25% of what it was, he said, and he cried when he had to lay off 13 workers. But he said he’s grateful that he at least has the opportunity to get a few orders out.
“This little town has really held together. I think they come and get to-gos even if they’re not hungry,” Nicoll said. “We will survive. This will all work out.”
At the nearby Pizza Pub, which is producing Italian pies via no-touch takeout, owner Rick Herzog said residents in and around Pine City may feel a little less vulnerable because of their more remote location, but most are still practicing social distancing. He spent a recent afternoon varnishing the floors in his 124-year-old building.
He felt lucky that his community was supportive, he said.
Herzog got teary-eyed when he produced a small envelope addressed to him at the restaurant.
There was no return address.
Inside was $300 cash and a sticky note that read: “It’s not much but I hope this helps.”
His voice cracked.
“Pretty special,” he said. “What small towns are.”