During these unprecedented times in the U.S., communities across the country are struggling. Every industry has been impacted by the coronavirus, and metropolitan cities such as New York City and Los Angeles have been hit hard. Small towns have been hit just as hard and are without the resources these larger cities have. Despite this, many small-town leaders anticipated that COVID-19 would impact their citizens and began preparations to protect their communities and resources. The following are just some examples of how rural communities have rallied to the coronavirus challenge.

Healthcare, Food and Tech

Breath of My Heart birthing center (BMH), an out-of-hospital birthing clinic in rural New Mexico, has seen a surge of activity as pregnant families seek alternatives to hospital births due to COVID-19. The clinic has increased its monthly birthing capacity from six to 10. BMH has made significant changes to its daily operations to protect both patients and employees. Only two employees and one patient are allowed in the clinic at any one time, and appointments are staggered to allow for a complete disinfection of rooms between sessions. BMH is holding online consultations and is rotating staff every two weeks to safeguard against COVID-19’s incubation period. BMH was able to do this because they proactively prepared for an event like this, using a $310,000 loan from the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) a CDFI in 2018l to expand its facility and hire new staff, all of which the clinic is now taking full advantage of.

The Town of Enfield, N.C. is continuing to advocate for the delivery of broadband to their town. School closings and children being forced to be home schooled only exacerbated the need for broadband accessibility. The increasing need for improved medical care coupled with the lack of transportation, greatly exposes their need to be connected. Enfield is partnering with Wade 7 Communications, Althea, and Cloudwise to provide hotspots for their citizens. These collaborations will give their students the ability to complete their class assignments and provide a platform for their medical providers to create a telehealth presence in their town. 

In Archer, Florida, a small town to the west of Gainesville, all community parks have been closed and the local government building has been structured to provide meals to citizens who are being financially affected.

Water Access

In small rural communities, water is often the lifeblood of the community. In a crisis, the water and wastewater systems are critical in ensuring health and prosperity and are often called upon to serve the most vulnerable populations.

In Blountstown, Florida, the community is still recovering from the damages left by Hurricane Michael in 2018. Blountstown City Manager Traci Hall said that in addition to suspending all disconnections, their Council is working with state and federal offices to provide resources for those small business owners and employees to help them find funding and supplies. 

Further up the East Coast, South Carolina’s Berkeley Electric Cooperative’s Board of Trustees recently voted to give ratepayers their security deposits back through bill credits, hoping to help ease some financial hardships. 

In Berlin Maryland, Water and Wastewater staff began working split A & B shifts working alternate days to limit the number of people on-site at a given time, and to ensure that if someone on one shift did contract the virus, the facilities would be able to operate with staff from the opposite shift. 

Rural communities are also constantly dealing with water access issues, and there is a significant need for capacity building around technical, managerial, and financial aspects of a system across the country to ensure access to clean, safe drinking water and sanitation services. Most water infrastructure projects are funded by local ratepayer bases, making investments in these projects challenging for rural systems. 

What Needs to Be Done:

As systems continue to see decreasing revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be imperative for Congress to step up to ensure that these systems have access to grants and principal forgiveness loans to maintain operations, an often overlooked aspect of this crisis. Infrastructure improvements are crucial, but the operations and maintenance of systems and the funding to support those programs are even more vital.

In the Village of Naplate, Illinois, community leaders began a project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make both water and wastewater system improvements. When the construction bid process was set to open, the state was under a “Stay at Home” order. Naplate’s Mayor instructed the project engineer to hold the bidding process through Zoom, a web-based video conferencing service. The project is now continuing to move forward, using Zoom to conduct meetings at each stage. 

Communities like Naplate and countless others are on the front lines of confronting this pandemic, and will need support from Congress to ensure that they not only survive, but thrive.

Nathan Ohle, Chief Executive Officer of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) 

About the Rural Community Assistance Partnership:

RCAP is a national non-profit network providing opportunity, assistance, and practical guidance to small communities in all fifty states, U.S. territories, and tribal lands to ensure access to safe drinking water, sanitary wastewater disposal, and economic prosperity for all rural America. To learn more about RCAP, visit www.rcap.org.