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A Resort Town Becomes A COVID-19 Hot Spot, And Says: Stay Away


Some states in the rural West are still reporting very low numbers of COVID-19 cases, but there are pockets with high infection rates - wealthy resort towns with lots of out-of-state visitors. Blaine County, Idaho, home to the Sun Valley Resort, has 148 known cases and two deaths. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, Sun Valley is trying to restrict travel in and out of the area.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In what would normally be the tail end of the busy spring break season, the streets of Ketchum and Sun Valley are mostly deserted, the slopes and chairlifts above town closed for weeks. And things have been a bit tense, says Justin Malloy, who lives here year-round. He's been telecommuting with his wife from their apartment. They only go out to walk the dog or to get groceries once a week.

JUSTIN MALLOY: You know, we've been seeing a lot of Washington plates, a lot of California plates, their cars just full of all of their stuff that they've brought from out of state.

SIEGLER: Photos also showing private jets continuing to land at the tiny airport recently fueled outrage on social media, with locals complaining that the uber-rich were fleeing cities to seek refuge in rural Idaho, unknowingly making the public health crisis here worse. Most of this for now is anecdotal. Josh Kern is vice president of medical affairs for the local St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center.

JOSH KERN: Yeah, it seems likely that people were fleeing other places and not recognizing that they were then bringing the disease with them from Seattle.

SIEGLER: But hospital officials say Blaine County and Sun Valley are seeing some of the highest rates of known COVID-19 cases in the entire U.S. And while resort towns like this can typically house a lot of tourists, that doesn't extend to the local hospital, which has just 25 beds.

BRENT RUSSELL: No one should come here.

SIEGLER: ER doctor Brent Russell should know. He has COVID-19. He's been very sick, so he can't work here at a critical time.

RUSSELL: We have a really high percentage of COVID spreading amongst the population here. And if you come here, you know, that is putting your life at risk, and then it's putting others' lives at risk.

SIEGLER: And Dr. Russell figures he probably got infected in the ER, but he says he could have just as easily gotten it at the ski resort before it closed March 15.

RUSSELL: You know, it seems like a low-risk activity. It is outdoors. But most everybody eats lunch in a crowded lodge, and then even more so are the chairlifts, where you're sitting, you know, shoulder to shoulder with four people.

SIEGLER: Some of the West's first known COVID-19 cases came from ski resorts that draw visitors from around the world. Colorado's governor ordered that anyone who's traveled to four of his state's resort counties to self-quarantine for 14 days - this after the chairman of the Mexican stock exchange was reported to have contracted the virus in Vail. Yale sociology professor Justin Farrell says secluded resort towns may not be the safe havens the uber-wealthy tend to think they are.

JUSTIN FARRELL: You may be even more at risk with supplies if you are, you know, staying in your remote estate. And the service industry that basically props up your way of life - if that is gone, it's much more difficult to survive out there than it would be if you could run to the supermarket in a larger city.

SIEGLER: Farrell isn't surprised by the local backlash. He says towns like Sun Valley have huge income inequality and rely heavily on a mostly lower-income Latino workforce. One certain is that the local economic fallout will be huge. But Sun Valley ER doctor Brent Russell says doing the right thing now - following the strict isolation orders - will save his community in the end.

RUSSELL: The overall impact on the economy - I suspect it would be much less than if we try to kind of keep the economy going right now and, therefore, exacerbate the problem.

SIEGLER: Russell, who's 50 and healthy and skied 80 days last season, has been in bed for more than a week. He'll start to feel better, and then there's a setback. Trust me, he says. You don't want this.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.