Rural Destinations ‘Ready to Reopen’ But Fear Virus

By: - May 21, 2020 12:00 am

Matilda Fresk, left, and Enosh Baker hike along the rocks at Joshua Tree National Park in California this week. The park reopened this week after a lengthy closure to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

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When the first coronavirus shutdowns were announced in March, hoteliers in the Appalachian town of Gadsden, Alabama, said they did not want to host visitors from other states.

So, Hugh Stump, executive director of Greater Gadsden Area Tourism, told them that as private businesses, they could deny lodging to people for reasons other than age, race, religion and other protected categories. 

“If somebody’s coming from New York, and you’re worried about New York, you don’t have to allow them in your hotel,” Stump advised. 

Rural destinations like Gadsden shunned out-of-towners at the outset of the pandemic, but now they’re eager for visitors as states lift some stay-at-home restrictions ahead of Memorial Day. At the same time, communities are weighing their economic needs against their infection fears.

Rural areas typically have a weaker health care infrastructure, with far-flung hospitals and fewer doctors. Nationwide, rural residents tend to be poorer, sicker and more vulnerable to infection than city dwellers and suburbanites. 

Ready or not, the influx of visitors is coming.

“There’s no question about it; the great outdoors, the rural regions are where people are going to go” for Memorial Day weekend, said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “I expect that Mount Rushmore, the Dakotas, are going to get massive amounts of travelers.” 

The Gadsden area is just what travelers will be looking for, Stump said. It has the amenities of a larger town without the concentration of people (Gadsden’s population is about 35,000). A hotel room runs about a night.

People can kayak and fish along the Coosa River or bike up local mountain trails. Stump expects interest in Gadsden’s small-town amenities to persist throughout the year. 

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.