The coronavirus crisis has been acutely felt in urban areas, but the virus also spread disastrously, and in some ways differently, in rural America. Equipped with a facemask and a selfie stick, Laura Flanders reports in this episode (from a responsible distance) on the impact of Covid-19 on one poor, rural county just 100 miles from New York City. Talking to poultry workers, dairy workers, artists, activists and labor organizers, she looks at what the pandemic has revealed about their county from its economic fragility, to the strength of local social networks. What fears do people have facing a future of more budget cuts and what sort of investment is most needed now?
This is an episode that speaks to rural and small town life that is rarely visible in our media, even when, as here, the community in question is just 100 miles from a global media capital. It also serves as an example of how journalists can continue to report safely in the midst of a pandemic.
In This Episode
- Senator Jen Metzger of the 42nd Senate District (D-Working Families Party)
- Sandra Oxford, Director, Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, AFL/CIO.
- Juanita Sarmiento, Youth Economic Group Coordinator, Rural & Migrant Ministry
- Carlos Orellana, Labor Organizer
- Cheese worker Luz and her daughter Marisol
- Sabrina Artel, radio host, Trailer Talk.
- Nancy McGraw, Public Health Director, Sullivan County Public Health Services
- Dara A. Smith, SCBOCES, School Lunch Manager, Fallsburg CSD & Liberty CSD at Liberty High School
- Denise Frangipane, Chair of the Board, Catskills Food Hub
- Steven Swendsen, Midland Farms, Cochecton, NY
- Sara Hulse and her band
- Gary Silver, President-elect, Liberty Rotary Club, Operation Feed
- Aileen Gunther, NY State Assemblywoman for Sullivan County
Where to Watch
You can watch this episode on your local WORLD channel at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, September 6.
Click here to find a schedule for your local PBS station.
Click here to watch online on YouTube. The episode will be made available at 11:30 am ET on Sunday, September 6.
Sabrina: There is a divide in the county. It’s a county of extremes. It’s a county of beauty and ugliness.
Juanita: We witness farm workers and workers in food processing plants deemed essential workers but not essential human beings.
Sandra: The pandemic has forced everybody to pull that curtain back and to look, and now we have to see the reality of where we are.
Laura: Still coming up on The Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a backseat to the people who are doing it.
Jen: First of all, Sullivan County is an exquisitely beautiful place.
Juanita: Sullivan County is this very gorgeous rural area of New York. We have a very eclectic group of people here. All different religions, all different backgrounds.
Jen: The people of Sullivan County have a really strong sense of place, a really strong identity with where they live and with the Catskills.
Juanita: The landscape, it’s what keeps me here. I live right in front a lake and it’s gorgeous.
Sandra: I have intentionally raised my family in this wonderful community over the last quarter of a century. You have the beauty of really knowing your neighbor, knowing the neighborhood, people knowing you, and there’s a great sense of solidarity in that.
Laura: When the COVID-19 crisis hit New York City, I came up here to Sullivan County, a rural county just two hours north, where I’ve had a cabin for more than 30 years. After a few weeks, I started noticing that the numbers here were rising, and the incidence rate per head of population was actually higher than that in Manhattan in New York City. To find out what was going on, I got my trusty mask and a super long selfie stick and went to find out.
Jen: I’m Jen Metzger, and I am a state senator, New York State Senator, representing the 42nd district, which is … It spans two regions, the Hudson Valley and Catskills regions. It covers four counties. Sullivan is the only whole county within the district, and it also covers parts of Ulster, Orange, and Delaware Counties. The vast majority of the legislators in the Democratic majority represent urban and suburban areas, so I view it as my mission really to kind of educate colleagues on the challenges and opportunities that we have in our rural areas in New York and make sure that our concerns are prioritized.
Laura: Would it be fair to say that you might have started this year feeling pretty cheery about the direction the county was going in, the district?
Jen: Yes, absolutely. They were seeing a huge increase in tourism. They just had this past year the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, which was a really big deal for the county. Brought millions and millions of people to Sullivan County. So yeah, we were doing great.
Sabrina: I’m Sabrina Artel, and I live in Liberty, New York here in Sullivan County. I have a project called Trailer Talk. Pre-pandemic, I would be getting my travel ready, the Bee-Line ready. I would be thinking about where I could be in the community, what kinds of events, and really by being at those events could address and be in conversation about different issues. So this is all coming into this season, and then, by the middle of March, we had our shutdown.
Carlos: Okay, you can record my Bernie sign. Well, my name is Carlos Orellana. I’m originally from El Salvador and I live in Liberty, New York, but my pay job is as a union organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Finally, last year Governor Cuomo signed the new law, right, giving farm workers, agriculture workers the right to unionize and to be represented. So this year, I was assigned to be one of the organizers working with farm workers.
Laura: Were you excited about that?
Carlos: I was excited in January and February, and then we got hit with the pandemic, so I’ve been home for the last couple of months. In Sullivan County, in the beginning of March, we were happy that we didn’t see that many numbers, positive cases, but then in April, we started to see more, and more, and more.
Sandra: My name is Sandra Oxford. I live in Hurleyville, New York. And I’ve lived here in the Catskill Mountains for about 30 years. I’ve been a labor activist for half of that time. Since COVID-19 began making its way into what has traditionally been a poultry and food processing corridor for New York City and other metropolitan areas, all of the food processors have workers that have turned up COVID positive. All of the food processors have parts of the food processing plant that has been identified as having been infected. That’s a real issue right now, because we have people who are well who are going into these environments that are making them sick.
Sabrina: There is a divide in the county. It’s a county of extremes. It’s a county of beauty and ugliness. If we’re looking at demographics, there’s a huge, massive challenge with poverty. It’s now the third unhealthiest county in the state of New York. It was the second after the Bronx. So there are real issues that one may think of as being urban issues, but we have them here and we have them in rural America. And what’s happened now is that these inequalities have become more extreme.
Jen: It’s been incredibly, incredibly challenging. Tourism was really a driver in the economy. That essentially shut down. Businesses like the casino and the water park, which employed many, many hundreds of people had to close down, but also all of the smaller nonessential businesses during this pandemic, mom and pop businesses in our small towns, we’re getting so many calls from people trying to get unemployment insurance and really struggling.
Steve: In 1996, we sold our milk cows because it just didn’t pay. So from there we went more or less to a beef operation. Now, because all the beef markets have shut down, we’re kind of really out of business.
Woman: Every year we run a camp for kids. Teach ’em to tie flies, we teach ’em to fly fish, but we’re shut down this year so it’s just the old guys out here now.
Sarah: All our gigs are canceled. We’ve got nothing.
Man: Live streams.
Sarah: We were gonna be going down to West Virginia, and now that was canceled.
Man: As far as I know things are on hold. It’s not even in a place where we can think about when to start rescheduling stuff.
Juanita: We touch topics from LGBTQ rights, this is free thinking, so “Expression is freedom.” And this is actually one of our best sellers. It’s, “They tried to bury us. “They didn’t know we were seeds.” My name is Juanita. I am a coordinator for a youth empowerment program in Sullivan County, New York through an organization called Rural and Migrant Ministering. During the summer, that’s when everyone gets a job. You’re 15 years old and up, you’re working. Not being able to work, all the camps are closed, all the concert halls are closed, the theaters, so so many people have lost their jobs but then so many people can’t have the choice to not go to work because they still have to pay rent, they still need to pay their cellphone bills, and they still need to buy food for their family.
Laura: So how are people getting by and how are you helping?
Juanita: We have raised, state-wide, almost 10,000 face masks. And then, in Sullivan County, I’ve raised a little over 2,000 face masks. So we’re in South Fallsburg right now at one of the food processing plants here in Sullivan County, and we are distributing masks to the food processing workers. We’ve given out over 100 so far today. I’m working with one of my partners, Manuel, and then also our affiliate Sandy Oxford who comes with the Hudson Valley ALF. There’s such a large number of people that are working, so we want to make sure that they’re not just protected in here, but also out when they’re doing groceries and stuff so that’s one of the main reasons that we’re handing out the masks. Another is because they have had a really high percentage of infection rate here.
Marisol: Her name is Luz. She’s a hardworking mom. She provides us with everything. Basically she’s amazing. She’s the best mom.
Laura: Talk about the beginning of all this situation if you can, Luz. When was the first time you heard there was a COVID-19, a pandemic, a crisis, a problem? And then just remind us what kind of work you were doing, Luz. Anybody die?
Marisol: Yeah, one person.
Woman: He was working here, and unfortunately …
Sabrina: He died.
Sabrina: Did he die of COVID?
Woman: I believe.
Sabrina: So what are you raising funds?
Woman: For his funeral.
Sabrina: For his funeral.
Woman: Yeah, and his daughter.
Sandra: You hear from the management that everything is like a holiday in this industry, and meanwhile we’re standing here and people are taking donations for their coworkers who have died here, okay? So everything is not a holiday camp inside these plants. Food processing workers and poultry workers continue to work shoulder to shoulder, and the majority of workers that I’m talking about are workers that are in, for lack of a better way to put it, have a variety of migration statuses. Not everyone has a legal status.
Laura: Which makes it harder for them to know where to go for help.
Sandra: Yeah, and makes it harder for them to be eligible for help, because if you are in the process of becoming legal or if you are not fully documented, there’s less access that you have to resources despite being an “essential worker.”
Laura: So they paid an extra $2 an hour to stay when it could be dangerous to your health or even kill you?
Laura: And did people think it was worth it? They did it?
Marisol: They did it, ’cause it was $2.
Laura: Do you think it’s right the way she was treated?
Marisol: No, it’s not right. Not telling them makes them think that you don’t care. Like they don’t care about their health.
Sandra: They believe that these are disposable workers, and that these workers will continue to cross invisible borders to get into this country to make their crackers, to make their foie gras, to make their Cornish hens, and to produce all of the food that the essential workers have been forced to get up and do every day.
Carlos: In the case of farm workers, they’re not even considered to be part of the economy sometimes. Very few people know about their working conditions, their living conditions, how they’re treated. Some come from overseas to work here. It’s like an invisible community.
Sandra: You may not think of all of that when you think of Sullivan County. People know like the Woodstock site, and peace, love, and all of that is wonderful. However, what is being exacerbated in this pandemic is what everybody has tried to keep very quiet and very silent on, and the pandemic has forced everybody to pull that curtain back and to look, and now we have to see the reality of where we are.
Jen: A big change I would say in my work during this pandemic is I’ve been doing the legislative work but I’ve also really had to to focus on the district and on just helping people day to day and getting information to them. It’s really been about directly helping constituents, helping hospitals get supplies, trying to get supplies to first responders. It’s really been that crisis management, and everyone is doing it right now.
Aileen: I think there’s gonna be a lot of PTSD with nurses. I do. I think that watching people die in those kinds of numbers every day, and it is mind boggling. I think people want to hear something else at this point. What’s the plan? How do we go forward? You come across a lot of people with a great heart. There are a lot of people out there, more than you would ever know, that just really care about people and what’s happening, and can we help?
Gary: Operation Feed is a collaboration between the Liberty Rotary Club and the Monticello Rotary Club to basically both support local restaurants and also to thank the staff and the people at the hospital and other health facilities, Mobilemedic, Sullivan Public Health, to just thank them for alL they’re doing. We try and support them by providing them with some meals. We pick at the hospital a different department or two a day that we feed twice a day. The restaurants are suffering, so by doing this we make sure that they stay open. So when the world comes back to normal, if that ever happens, and if we ever were normal, then they’ll be there for everybody to enjoy. They can enjoy us, and we can enjoy them.
Sabrina: We have people in school cafeterias that could stay at home. They’re actually being paid to stay at home right now because it’s safer, but they’re safely, right, going to the school cafeteria, and they’re preparing breakfast and lunches for school children. They’re loading them into buses, and they’re delivering them to their front door or in their mailbox.
Dara: I remember the first day that it happened, I started crying, and I’m gonna cry right now because, yeah, it really is very moving to see that. Everyone coming together to make sure kids get what they need.
Woman: So I’m very proud to say that I’m a lunch lady.
Denise: So the Food Hub was created as a way to aggregate and distribute local farm products for Sullivan County and the Catskills and the region. Our nonprofit mission is to help grow the agricultural community in this area by creating a connection between farmers and producers and the markets. So every week, after we go through our retail pack out once we see what we have left in inventory, still fresh, still viable product, just happens to be a little bit extra, then we work that into the program and we fill between 24 or so boxes. Some for individuals, some for families, and those are picked up by the Sullivan Fresh folks and distributed in the community.
Saraid: I just can’t sleep at night knowing that there’s people out there that are starving. My people. I need to make a difference, whether it’s donations, volunteer. There’s so many organizations out there, so many great people that are doing such great things, and it just … I’m really fortunate and I’m happy to be a part of it.
Jen: This is one of my favorite initiatives. It is exactly what I want to see everywhere throughout our rural communities, because it’s about building the regional food system. It’s about building alternative supply chains where we feed ourselves.
Laura: By the middle of June, New York State had flattened the curve on new coronavirus cases, and progress was happening in Sullivan County too. The total number of positive cases stands at just over 1,400. We’ve sustained 47 deaths. People in the health department attribute their success to early attention, action, and advocacy on behalf of everyone who lives here. But the demographic data is hard to track, and there’s talk of 20% budget cuts coming down the pike from the state and the federal government. So, while people here are feeling pretty strong in their Sullivan mutual aid capacity, they’re very clear about the systemic and structural challenges that remain. They can do a lot, and they’ve learned a lot, but they need help. They can’t do everything that needs to be done in a rural county like this by themselves. What do you think people don’t get about the concerns of a rural county like this one, and specifically, perhaps, its needs in a moment like this of the COVID-19 epidemic? You’re frozen at my end. Right, let’s just stop there for a second.
Jen: Okay, I’m back. I’m back again. And we will be talking about broadband.
Laura: In fact, we could say this was all put on just to show the problem.
Jen: In rural areas that I represent where there are major gaps in broadband, this has meant that kids who, their school’s been closed, and they’re at home remote learning don’t have access to the same resources that other kids to that do have that access. I’ve been making a lot of noise about this in the press for some time. The governor has been saying that broadband has been solved in New York State and has moved on, and we’re saying, “No it hasn’t. “Come to Sullivan County, it has not been solved.”
Sabrina: I believe that the intention is here, the good will is here, the dedication, the energy is here. But what we need is support. We need federal support, we need state support, because already being modeled are incredible examples of how we can improve the quality of life from let’s say everybody in this county. We’re not gonna say more people, everybody. If we only have 78,000 people in this entire county there is no reason why we cannot support the community.
Sandra: All of us here doing the humanitarian aid, we are doing it because that’s our fabric, that’s what we believe. I also believe that part of this mutual aid should be coming from the tops and the heads of these industries, the people who introduced these industries to the community and who are part of the power structure, because the corporate power structure has something to contribute to this. They could be the single point of entry to help with the quarantining instruction, to help with banding together to be sure that all their “essential workers” were able to capture the federal money that ame through through the stimulus package for their childcare, which none of this was done.
Laura: What would you like to reset? And do you see any seeds of that resetting in what is happening now? Perhaps in how people and groups like yours are responding?
Carlos: I think we learned that the community needs to be more united. We need to be more responsible with each other. The residents in our county, or anywhere else, who never pay attention to the Formaggio cheese workers or the poultry workers, now they have been exposed to that and realize that these low-wage, poor immigrants are a very important factor in our economy and in our life, right?
Juanita: Rural and Migrant Ministry’s efforts to seek the equality of farm workers, the backbone of our economy, under the New York State labor laws was a response to a 400-year racist exploitation of slave labor. For a brief moment in history, with the passage of the Farm Worker Fair Labor Practices Act in New York State, we were able to stand up against history and affirm one another as we brought about systematic change. Now, as the pandemic wreaks havoc across so much of the land it also exposes the legacy of this long history and reminds us how much more needs to change.
Sandra: We are seeing new leadership emerging. Juanita is one of those people. She is organizing people and is making us all very proud to be shoulder to shoulder, socially distanced, with her.
Juanita: After this pandemic, I think that people are gonna look at how much they take for granted their bonds with family and friends and just being able to be hand-in-hand with the rest of your community.
Sandra: We have to give the community a seat at the table, and it cannot just be that one little ceremonial seat that we get. You can no longer show up wearing a sombrero and eating an empanada and convincing me that you have my interest. It has to be relational. No more of this transactional garbage. We have to have this rooted in real relationships if we really respect and value community.
Woman: We forget the power that we have. There is power in numbers. Our voices will be heard.
Woman: As a child of the ’60s, we’ve been through this before, and I think that this community is gonna keep meeting, and marching, and rallying until not people say the right thing, but until we see the right thing.
Girl: It’s our generation now to fight this fight for the next generation coming, which is my daughter.
Woman: Black lives matter, that’s it. Point black, period.
Sabrina: I would like to see this moment and what’s happening because of COVID-19 be the moment where we don’t accept what was and we actually look what’s ahead, what we could use that’s already being modeled in this rural community, and say, “Okay, let’s take some of this “and let’s come up with solutions “that actually improve the quality of life. “That improve the kind of society that we live in.”
Laura: For more on this episode and other forward thinking content, and to tune in to our podcast, visit our website at lauraflanders.org, and follow us on social media @TheLFshow.
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