Divided Together: Some rural residents turn to each other, not experts, for COVID-19 guidance
This story is the third in a three-part series, “Divided Together,” looking at the urban-rural divide in the United States through the lens of one town: Lynden, Washington. The project was funded by a grant from Election SOS, which works to improve news coverage of elections. You can find the first installment here and the second here. You can read this story in Spanish here.
The Lynden area is home to some of the loudest opposition in Washington state to pandemic-related restrictions on businesses.
The Fairway Cafe, a cozy local restaurant, has racked up tens of thousands of dollars in fines, among the most in the state, for having unventilated indoor dining and lax mask-wearing among staff. A GoFundMe campaign to help the restaurant pay off fines raised more than $30,000.
One promoter of the online fundraiser was a group called WeWill Whatcom. Its members question the efficacy and necessity of policies like restrictions on restaurants, which they argue force small businesses to bear an unfair financial burden from the pandemic.
"It's not that any of us don't think that the virus exists or that people shouldn't take care of themselves or wear a mask or anything like that," said Ashley Butenschoen, a founder member of WeWill Whatcom. "It's just about personal responsibility and choice and being able to decide on your own."
The group is just one example of residents in and around the small, conservative town trusting neighbors, questioning experts and taking public health, to an extent, into their own hands.
Erika Lautenbach, director of the Whatcom County Health Department, said one reason for the distrust is that the department has been viewed in the rural county as a punitive agency that gives out fines rather than a source of information.
"When you start with something like this, where we are already viewed as an agency that's regulatory in nature and an agency to be feared, that inherent, initial distrust is hard to beat back," Lautenbach said.
You can listen to that story above and read the script below.
Will James: This week, our series “Divided Together” has immersed you in the conservative farming town of Lynden, Washington. We’ve been exploring the urban-rural divide. And the coronavirus pandemic seems to have ripped that divide wide open over the past year. Lynden has a population of just 15,000 people, but in all of Washington state, it’s had some of the strongest resistance to pandemic-related closures. KNKX’s Bethany Denton has that story.
Erick Casanova: E los números en estado escalando...
Bethany Denton: This is an excerpt from Platica Latina, a talk show on community radio station KSVR. It broadcasts out of Mount Vernon, Washington, about an hour south of Lynden. The show is less than a year old, and got its start on social media when host Erick Casanova started posting information about which local businesses remained open in the early stages of the pandemic.
Erick Casanova: Showcasing all of the restaurants that were available to our community, doing takeout and curbside and all that stuff. Bringing this information to them brought a lot of relief.
Bethany Denton: Since then, the show has expanded to include interviews with health officials and experts on all kinds of topics relevant to the pandemic. Latinos make up about 10 percent of the population of Whatcom County, where Lynden is, many of whom are farm workers. And Latino farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to infection because they often work and live in close quarters. So Erick wanted to do his part to spread accurate information in a relatable way.
Erick Casanova: In our culture, word of mouth is a very, very, very, I want to say reliable but, we trust word of mouth a lot so there's definitely a lot of misinformation that happens.
Bethany Denton: What Erick is describing though, this tendency for people to trust word of mouth, is an issue far beyond just the Latino community he serves. An increasing number of people rely on social media for their information, and an increasing number of people distrust government agencies and the media.
Erika Lautenbach: In some ways, we in Whatcom County were the victims of our own success.
Bethany Denton: Erika Lautenbach is director of the Whatcom County Health Department. She says she’s sympathetic to people who are skeptical about the government’s approach to COVID, in part because Whatcom County really hasn’t been overwhelmed by the virus the way other places have.
Erika Lautenbach: There was so much fear in the beginning of this. And because of all of the prevention measures and the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order and the phased reopening in Washington state, those realities that we were seeing elsewhere did not come home to Washington state. And I think it bred additional sort of distrust of, like, maybe that we were being too alarmist. And so when you start with something like this, where we are already viewed as an agency that's regulatory in nature and an agency to be feared, that inherent initial distrust is hard to beat back. It just is.
Bethany Denton: In this vacuum of public trust, people in Whatcom County have taken public health into their own hands, particularly on social media. In one Facebook group, called Bellingham Safer Open, members post about businesses going the extra mile to follow safety protocols and warn about other businesses they see as falling short. Another group, with a different philosophy, started to form near Lynden in late November.
(KING 5 clip: They called it the “Turkey Day Rebellion.” Community members, business owners and even some state lawmakers frustrated by increased restrictions surrounding COVID.
Rally speaker: We’re being manipulated and it’s up to us to say, “We’re not taking it no more, we’re going to have Thanksgiving with our family, and you’re not going to tell us otherwise.”)
Ashley Butenschoen: And so we just got into a room and said, you know, “What can we do? We don't agree with what's going on.”
Bethany Denton: Ashley Butenschoen is one of the founding members of a group called WeWill Whatcom, which has been critical of pandemic closures.
Ashley Butenschoen: And it's not that any of us don't think that the virus exists or that people shouldn't take care of themselves or wear a mask or anything like that. It's just about personal responsibility and choice and being able to to decide on your own.
Bethany Denton: Ashley is vice chair of the Whatcom GOP and helped plan Donald Trump’s visit to Lynden back in 2016. During the pandemic, she’s helped plan rallies and created petitions to oppose pandemic measures that affect small businesses.
(Ashley Butenschoen, in video clip: Are you sick of the lockdowns? Are you ready for Phase 3? Then this week’s WeWill update is for you.)
Bethany Denton: WeWill also produces video updates and profiles of businesses struggling to stay afloat. Lynden is just five miles south of the Canadian border, and the hospitality industry in all of Whatcom County is flailing without Canadian traffic. WeWill says the solution to that is to allow businesses to remain open so that the community can support itself.
Ashley Butenschoen: Why punish a restaurant, a small mom and pop, why are they being punished and shut down and losing everything that they worked for? If you're a big corporation, you're thriving. But if you're a small business, you're dying.
Bethany Denton: Erika Lautenbach, from the health department, says a lot of residents see the department as a punitive agency whose main purpose is giving out violations rather than a trusted source of information. And public health efforts have suffered because of that. In towns like Lynden, some people see the department as an outsider butting in. One restaurant in Lynden, called the Fairway Cafe, racked up some of the most citations in Washington state during the pandemic for having unventilated indoor dining and lax mask-wearing among staff. But instead of avoiding the small, quaint cafe, many Lyndenites rallied around it. One resident started a GoFundMe campaign to help the Fairway Cafe pay off the tens of thousands of dollars in fines. In a month, they raised over $30,000. WeWill promoted the fundraiser on their public Facebook page.
(Ashley Butenschoen, in video clip: We now know that being in lockdown is not working. As we look at states that have been open and states that have been closed over the winter, you can see that there’s really no difference in this graph.)
Bethany Denton: Ashley does not have a public health background, but she has become a source of information for many people in Whatcom County who share her concerns. She and her followers share a distrust of information coming from the government.
Ashley Butenschoen: It's hard for me to find good data because, you know, also some of the data comes out of your government. And so you just have to have faith that that data is correct. But also you could put out something that says one in a thousand people are going to die of COVID. But what does that mean? Does that mean one in a thousand people sick? Does that mean one in a thousand people over 80? Does that mean, you know what I mean? So we can spin the data however, you know, in politics, it's the same, right?
Bethany Denton: Lynden resident Rusty Polinder, we met him in a story earlier this week. He told me Lynden’s strength is also its weakness. It’s a tight-knit place where people really take care of each other. In a way, residents rallying to support local businesses is part of that. But that same impulse can also make the town insular. A lot of people are more inclined to trust their neighbors over public health experts. The same aspect of rural America that allows Erick, the radio host from earlier, to use Spanish-language broadcasts to amplify public health messages is what allows Ashley to use her influence to question them.
Will James: That story by KNKX's Bethany Denton. Public health officials continue to stress precautions for reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Those include wearing masks and avoiding crowded spaces and close contact with others. This was the final installment in our series “Divided Together.” It was funded by a grant from Elections SOS.