Business is slow at Studio 23, a hair salon just off the main drag in Pikeville, a small city in rural eastern Kentucky, so barber Derek Harris is outside chewing the fat with two maskless police officers while waiting for his first client.
The salon reopened at the end of May, but business is down by about 20%, and Harris fears another statewide lockdown could be on the cards if coronavirus infections continue to rise. In Kentucky Covid-19 may not, yet, be a big problem but the economic impact is everywhere.
“The salon won’t survive another shutdown, look how empty the streets are already, we have to keep the economy open no matter how bad it gets,” said Harris, 40, who is still catching up on bills after 10 weeks of unemployment.
Several small businesses – cafes, restaurants and clothes stores – have gone bust on Pikeville’s picturesque Main Street which by late morning is still largely deserted.
Here, like many places in the midwest, the economic fallout of Covid-19 hit before the health crisis: in April, the unemployment rate hit 17%, compared with 7% in February. So far, three deaths and 224 cases have been confirmed, according to the New York Times database.
Statewide restrictions were eased amid steady infection rates, and by the end of June unemployment was back down close to pre-pandemic levels. Pikeville launched a subsidized rent initiative to woo entrepreneurs to rent empty stores on Main Street.
But Kentucky is now on the brink: statewide reported cases began rising sharply in early July, and there’s been a steady increase in the percentage of overall positive tests.
“Coronavirus is a mess, but this is a small town with few people so it won’t spread much, personally I’m more worried about catching the flu. The economy is a bigger mess, another shutdown will lead to bankruptcies, depression and suicide,” added Harris.
Pikeville is the county seat of Republican-controlled Pike county, a major coal and natural gas producer with a poverty rate more than double the national average. About 97% of the county’s 62,000 people are white.
Kentucky’s surge in Covid-19 hotspots, like other states nationwide, coincided with reopening the economy as people went back to work and socializing.
As a result, Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease adviser, and Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator, have urged Governor Andy Beshear to reinstate physical distancing restrictions and push residents to wear masks – or else face dire consequences like those currently unfolding in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona.
Last week Beshear, a Democrat in a predominantly Republican state, shut down bars and reinstated tighter restrictions on restaurants amid rising infection rates.
But for Joe Coleman, a retired government maintenance worker, the governor has gone too far. “It’s not the right thing to do. The restrictions are too much. It’s ruining small businesses. It’s going to take too long to recover.”
Beshear’s executive orders mandating face masks in public spaces and allowing remote classes have been legally challenged by the Republican attorney general as unconstitutional.
Coleman, 68, blames the governor for the county’s economic woes, and the Democrats in Washington for America’s coronavirus death toll which will soon surpass 160,000.
“President Trump has tried to do right, but they won’t give him a break. I think he loves his country, not just the rich, the middle class and poor as well. He’ll get us back on our feet, Joe Biden isn’t capable of running this country, I think he’s got Alzheimer’s or something.”
It was an overreaction
Martin county, a rural community flanked by the Appalachian mountains 50 miles north of Pikeville, is one of America’s poorest with almost 40% of its 11,200 residents living in poverty, and high rates of opioid addiction.
In the county seat, Inez, the boarded-up shops date back to before the pandemic, and the small urban hub is surrounded by rundown trailers, signs advertising drug treatment services, and a handful of opulent houses and government buildings.
So far, the county has registered 32 cases and one Covid death: Troy Gullett, 77, a retired coalminer with respiratory conditions including black lung, who died last week.
Most residents comply with face masks, at least partially, but another lockdown would be difficult to enforce, according to Jimmy Kerr, a real estate investor, who recently returned from a family holiday in Florida.
“Around here, people are moving on. We haven’t had outbreaks like other places. We’re not New York. It was an overreaction. We can’t stop the virus, so we have to get back to normal unless the numbers get really high, but half the county would have to die. Most people in east Kentucky think the same,” said Kerr, whose mortgage business is booming thanks to low interest rates.
The numbers are still small, but the rate is ticking up.
Sticking with Trump
Nationally, Trump trails Biden in the polls by eight points. In Kentucky, he leads by 24 points, according to the most recent poll, while the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, leads Democrat Amy McGrath by 17.
In rural Kentucky, voters are still angry about coal.
Lawrence Boyd retired in 2002 after 32 years working as an electrician in mines across West Virginia and Kentucky. He’s a lifelong registered Democrat, just like his parents, and voted for Obama twice before turning to Trump in anger – like many of his friends and neighbours.
“Obama and Hillary shut down coal and put miners out of work. That was it for me. Trump has put American people in front of other countries,” said Boyd, 72.
When Trump took office, about 50,900 people worked in coalmining, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In January 2020, the job count had risen by about 400. In Kentucky, at least 2,000 coal jobs have been lost during the Trump administration compared with 6,300 during Obama’s second term,
Boyd, who requested that his real name not be used, continues to vote Democrat in local and state elections, but will vote for Trump in November, despite the rising Covid-19 death toll and economic disaster.
Boyd and his wife both have multiple underlying medical conditions and worry about catching the virus, but do not hold Trump responsible. The only news channel they watch is Fox News.
“We know it came from China, and the Democrats have stopped Trump from doing a good job, they keep fighting him on everything, like the mayors who don’t want federal troops. I used to feel that colored people should have the same rights as whites, but not after these riots. They’re calling us racist but it’s white people like us that put Obama in … voting for him turned out to be a mistake.”
‘No one wants to be the next Florida’
Democrat-governed Lexington, situated 140 miles west of Pikeville, is Kentucky’s second-largest city, best known for horse racing, bluegrass and the printing giant Lexmark.
Big employers in the city, which is 75% white, 14% black, include the University of Kentucky, the Fayette county public school system, Xerox and Toyota, but small independent businesses were also thriving before the pandemic.
In March, yoga instructor Ivy Invalesco opened a new studio on the north side of the city. A few days later the state went into lockdown. In order to stay afloat, Invalesco, 34, sold fitness equipment and furniture inherited from her grandmother, applied for loans and benefits, borrowed money from relatives, and even cut back on food.
“I ate eggs at every meal because my friend had chickens, I really had to tighten my belt to cover the overheads,” she said.
The studio reopened on 1 June but it’s tough: Invalesco has lost a bunch of yoga and personal training clients because people are too scared or can no longer afford classes, and she can only operate at 33% capacity.
Fayette county, where Lexington sits, is one of the hardest-hit by the virus, and several restaurants recently shut down again due to outbreaks.
“I don’t want to close down again or go bankrupt, but I don’t want people to die, so I understand that the governor has to play it safe. I’m praying we get a vaccine soon,” said Invalesco. Kentucky ranks fifth in personal bankruptcy claims filed during Covid, according to research by Money Geek.
Sean Cain, who works at Rock House Brewing, one of nine microbreweries to open in the city since 2013, agrees. “Small local businesses have transformed the city over the past 10 years and of course we’re worried about losing that, but if we have to shut down again, we’ll get through it. No one wants to be the next Florida.”