How Rural Arizona Has Dealt With COVID-19

By Ron Dungan
Published: Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, September 23, 2020 - 8:35am

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SPECIAL SERIES: COVID-19 In Arizona: 6 Months In

When COVID-19 struck, Arizona shut down its bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters, and Phoenix headed for the mountains.

To vacation homes in Flagstaff, Pinetop and Greer, to favorite campsites and fishing holes.

Rural Arizona seemed like a perfect place to social distance and pass the time. And the virus seemed slow to arrive.

“You know at the very beginning of this I thought, just intuitively, that the rural places would have an easier time with the virus just because there’s less connectivity between people,” said Will Humble, former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“The epidemic on the Navajo Nation sort of threw that to the winds because you don’t get much more rural than the Navajo Nation, and yet they had the highest per capita number of cases for a few weeks there, up there with New York,” he said.

The virus feeds on human behavior. And human behavior is pretty much the same, everywhere you go.

“You know, no matter how rural you are, people still desire that sense of community and that sense of belonging, and that means gathering together socially,” said Bryan Layton, assistant county manager for Navajo County.

The virus presented unique challenges to rural Arizona. There was some concern the virus might overwhelm local hospitals. Layton says that Navajo County was able to take advantage of CARES Act money to bring in extra nurses.

“We were certainly concerned about our hospital capacity just like everywhere else,” he said.

"But fortunately, we’ve been OK. We’ve pressed up to that point where it’s hit our threshold but our hospital capacities are good right now.”

Upper Lake Mary near Flagstaff
Ron Dungan/KJZZ
Valley residents went north to vacation homes in Flagstaff, Pinetop and Greer when the pandemic struck. Upper Lake Mary near Flagstaff is pictured.

High country businesses have welcomed the flood of visitors from the Valley.

“And they’re enjoying the mountains. It’s very hot down in the Valley, it’s nice and cool up here. There’s playing to do outside and be distant, and so people have seen that and enjoy it,” Layton said.

But something else was going on throughout Arizona. By late spring, struggling businesses wanted to get back to work. A stay-at-home order expired. Gov. Doug Ducey resisted calls to mandate masks statewide. The choice to wear a mask or not began to symbolize things like freedom and tyranny.

“And I have heard that there are some people that feel like it’s some sort of infringement on their civil liberties. I think that’s a very small number of people, but I know that they’re out there,” Humble said.

Across the state, wildfires burned, cases climbed and summer passed, with only the occasional storm, the days hotter and drier than normal. The mask debate raged.

“I’ve been called everything from a Nazi to, you know, the ugly B word,” said Deanna Davis, manager of the Ace Hardware in Springerville. “It’s been tough. Then you have people that circle around to you and tell you, good job, thank you.”

She said requires masks in her store, but she has seen a lot of pushback — on social media and in person.

“And you know it’s not just people in town giving me a hard time. It’s people coming up from the Valley,” Davis said. “They’re out-of-town people that are equally as distraught over the fact that they need to wear a mask for 15 minutes in the store.”

After cases began to rise in July, Ducey didn’t issue another stay at home order, but he kept some businesses shut down. He allowed cities to pass mask ordinances, and most of them responded. Numbers started to go down.

“I think a lot of it has had to do with the diligence of the communities,” Layton said. “We’ve seen a lot of people really step up, try to put a lot more focus on hand washing, hand hygiene, mask wearing, I think just coming together as a community. You can really see it in the numbers.”

Like its big-city neighbors, rural Arizona has had to adapt. It is not immune. Not to the virus. Not to politics or bouts of social media blowback.

Payson Rodeo Grounds
Ron Dungan/KJZZ
Fans stream into the Payson Rodeo Grounds in August 2020.

“That’s unfortunate, to see such bad feelings arise from this,” Layton said. “And when it should be just looking out for each other and what are we doing to preserve the great relations we’re had in our communities. Regardless of what’s happening nationally. Like, we’re still friends and neighbors.”

Like the rest of us, rural Arizona is learning as it goes along. Phoenix keeps heading for the mountains. People hunt and fish and hike. They drive backroads and listen to the wind in the trees. 

It’s cooler up there, and it’s possible to be socially distant and avoid indoor spaces. People in the high country may have their differences, but they have something else, Layton says. A sense of community.

“We try not to engage in the political nature of this, and rather try to turn the conversation more to, let’s take care of each other. As neighbors, as communities, let’s watch out for each other and care for each other.”

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Canyon Creek, Tonto National Forest.
Ron Dungan/KJZZ
Water flows along Canyon Creek in the Tonto National Forest.
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