On Oklahoma plains, an island of near normality in a pandemic

By Andrew Hay
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On Oklahoma plains, an island of near normality in a pandemic

n Oklahoma plains, an island of near normality in U.S. sea of coronavirus

By Andrew Hay

GUYMON, Okla., March 28 (Reuters) - On red cobbled Main Street in Guymon, the biggest town in Oklahoma's panhandle, Jesus Ruiz gives "high and tight" hair cuts as a red, white and blue barber's pole turns lazily outside.

About half the customers in the barber shop work at the busy pork processing plant in Guymon, a majority Hispanic/Latino community which rises like an island in a sea of corn and grass. Ruiz hopes this remoteness protects it from the coronavirus encroaching on all sides.

"I love it that nobody knows we're here," says Ruiz, 33, a Mexican-American who said the crime rate in Riverside, California, prompted him to quit the city near Los Angeles two years ago and move to this close-knit town of 11,500, where people often leave their doors unlocked when they go out.

In contrast to shuttered businesses and tens of millions of people confined to their homes across America, life seems fairly normal in Guymon, the closest case of coronavirus still more than 100 miles (160 km) away. There is nevertheless fear that COVID-19 may already be here, or will find its way in as workers from Texas, Kansas and other areas of the state commute to jobs in meat processing, feedlots and farms.

Guymon has not been spared the panic buying seen elsewhere and its library and recreation center are closed. All Oklahoma schools are shut for the remainder of their year.

But locally-owned small businesses and restaurants remain open, albeit limiting customers, many owners more fearful of the economic impact of the virus than the virus itself.

Unlike in neighboring New Mexico and Colorado, most Oklahomans do not face a stay-at-home order, but adults over 65 and people with underlying conditions are asked not to go out.

City Manager Joe Dunham said, under an order by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, it will take just one COVID-19 case in Guymon's Texas County for non-essential businesses to close.

"I was hoping to keep restaurants open as long as possible just to create a sense of normalcy and not have panic," said Dunham, who is still getting used to not shaking hands with visitors to city hall. "It's a little bit quieter, the highway still seems pretty busy though."


CRITICAL FOOD BUSINESS

There is nothing quiet about the Seaboard Foods SEB.A pork processing plant three miles up U.S. Highway 64. It is operating at full capacity with nearly 2,600 workers, more than 80 percent of whom live in Guymon or the county.

People from at least four continents speaking about 19 languages and dialects process more than 20,000 hogs a day. This "critical" food operation, by far Guymon's biggest employer, has been ordered to stay open.

As hundreds of workers change shifts, four Spanish speaking employees pile out of a Chevy Caprice after car-pooling the 40-miles from Liberal, Kansas. One has worked at the plant for a week, another several months, two of them for years.

"Of course we're scared of coronavirus," said a 61-year-old woman from Mexico, who asked that her name not be used. "It's really cold in there and there are a lot of people with flu."

Plant employees are asked to stay home if they feel sick and Seaboard is offering two weeks paid leave to any worker told to self-quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19, said spokesman David Eaheart. The company is giving extra pay to employees who meet attendance requirements in the busy weeks ahead.

Thirteen coronavirus tests have come back negative in the county, with zero positive and 10 results pending, Texas County Memorial Hospital reported.


'DETACHED FROM REALITY'

Back on Main Street, Kalye Griffin, 42, arranges shirts at her Top Hand western store and trusts in God to safeguard families in this county where eight in ten voters backed President Donald Trump in 2016.

Services have not stopped at Griffin's Victory Center Church and other houses of worship.

"We are very grounded in our faith and know we are protected," said Griffin, who has seen sales dwindle as rodeos and dances are canceled. "The fear is doing more damage than the virus."

A few blocks north, hairdresser Rick French, 66, is skeptical about shutting businesses to fight a virus he believes may only be as deadly as the flu.

At the same time, he says there is some denial in Guymon that anything as nasty as coronavirus could ever come to town.

"It's almost like we're detached from reality. Nobody can believe it is going to happen here," said French, who plans to vote for Trump again this year. He said his business has dropped off as older female customers stay home. "We watch it on TV and just hope it doesn't come here."


(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Guymon, Oklahoma; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Daniel Wallis)