For small U.S. towns, just one coronavirus infection can put governance at risk.

In Marvell, Ark., a tiny Mississippi Delta town of 855 residents tucked into a sea of cotton, soy bean and corn fields, Lee Guest is a particularly essential essential worker.

He is the mayor and the assistant fire chief, and his day job is as a rural mail carrier. If the four employees of the local water utility don’t show up, he knows enough about the system to keep the water flowing, too.

“There’s a handful of us — we can go get stuff taken care of,” he said.

So when he was away from work for a week after contracting Covid-19 at the beginning of the year, the worn engine of small town governance and administration in Marvell, about a 90-minute drive southwest from Memphis, sputtered and coughed, but it chugged on.

Out of 13 full-time and 11 part-time employees, six have gotten Covid-19. One, who went to a hospital but wasn’t admitted, got sick in 2020. The rest of the cases have tested positive in the last three weeks.

It’s a familiar story in small towns across the country, where the spike in infections from the Omicron variant hit local governments with particular force. The virus has ripped through big cities like Los Angeles and New York, sidelining thousands of police officers and transit operators. In many, leaders have rushed to reassure residents that firefighters and paramedics will show up when they call amid record absences.

But in small communities, the people responsible for keeping crucial public services up and running say the strain is acute: With bare-bones workforces already stretched thin, there is no margin for error when multiple workers have to call in sick.

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