From October through Thanksgiving, rural Americans died from COVID-19 at almost twice the rate of their urban peers. Although that grim divide has since narrowed somewhat, it's clear that a pandemic once associated with dense cities will exact some of its gravest damage on the countryside. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture adds to a growing body of research showing that rural areas will be burdened by the effects of the virus — economic, medical and social — for many years to come.
Yet for all of their vulnerabilities, some of these areas were actually thriving pre-pandemic. And the crisis may even open new opportunities to address some of their long-neglected problems.
Before COVID struck, some rural areas had hit on a promising new formula for revitalizing themselves. In particular, non-metro counties in which recreation, such as tourism, was a dominant industry had the fastest rates of personal-income growth between 2010 and 2017. This was no accident: Over the past decade and a half, small towns have invested $20 billion into downtowns, helping to create some 28,000 new businesses. The recipe for this kind of growth varies, but typically involves public-private investments in existing assets, such as classic Main Street buildings.
Rock Springs, Wyo., is a good example. In 2005, it was a blighted mining town with little to recommend it. But that year, the city formed an urban renewal agency, which has since worked with local officials and companies to renovate old downtown buildings, offer grants to attract new businesses (via rental assistance and other perks), and chart development plans. The results have been strong: Rock Springs is now a tourism hub that attracted private investment of more than $2.3 million between 2015 and 2019. For a city of less than 25,000, that's a major boon that has benefited an entire region.
Places as disparate as Emporia, Kansas, and Laramie, Wyo., have had similar successes in recent years, with bars, restaurants, boutiques and tourist attractions dotting newly bustling Main Streets. Unfortunately, COVID has put a stop to much of that revitalization. According to the USDA, non-metro counties with recreation-based industries now have an average unemployment rate of 7%, compared with about 5% in those with agriculture-based industries. Even that disparity likely understates the damage, as informal businesses — such as part-time tour guides — lose customers.
That's bad enough. But there are worries that the slowdown could be especially damaging in these areas. For one thing, a long-standing dearth of mental health services in rural America means that an expected surge in anxiety, depression and other conditions related to joblessness may go largely unaddressed. The well-documented danger is that the newly unemployed become the long-term unemployed.
Fortunately, that's not the only possible outcome. Kelly Asche, a researcher with the Center for Rural Policy and Development in New London, Minn., points out that non-metro areas, many of which have been losing population for decades, have become more attractive to urbanites looking for open space during the pandemic, especially those who no longer need to commute to big-city offices. "Housing has gone nuts in rural spaces," he told me, "and that's a really good opportunity for rural areas to take advantage of."
Attracting long-term urban relocations would not only help sustain the progress made in creating vibrant rural commercial districts. It could also renew pressure on Washington to address problems — such as a lack of quality health care or widespread broadband — that were plaguing rural America long before the pandemic. That could help create a virtuous circle, made all the more urgent by the pandemic.
President-elect Joe Biden's administration can help spur this transition by supporting additional funding for rural downtowns via the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Local redevelopment agencies can offer help to small businesses seeking grants and technical assistance, such as help meeting new COVID-related health requirements. Congress should also consider establishing a rural development-finance institution that could seek out innovative, longer-term strategies for revitalization.
Such efforts could help reduce the immediate damage that COVID has inflicted on these areas. Down the road, they could also help bring prosperity and pride-of-place back to communities that are often afterthoughts. Over time, they might even help urban and rural Americans start to feel like neighbors again.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade" and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."