Split Reaction Amidst the North Country

Up until this week, Kevin Elkin has been at home with his wife and kids in Indian Lake, waiting for life to resume. He runs a tree company and says it can’t happen soon enough.

“There’s a very short season,” he said of Indian Lake’s seasonal businesses. “Most of our money, people who own businesses here, it’s made within a four-month time period. If that four-month time period is lost, our ability to make it through the next winter is in jeopardy.”

The North Country is looking ahead to a slow, phased reopening later this month. At least that’s the plan if the region meets all the criteria laid out by the state.

Yet, residents of the North Country remain divided over whether that’s a good idea. That’s according to a survey we released earlier this month on reopening. Of the nearly 350 respondents, results were almost evenly split between those, like Elkin, who are ready to see the economy restart, and those who say it’s taking a dangerous risk of the coronavirus spreading more.

Elkin began working again this week. He says keeping the coronavirus at bay is important, but he’s fearful for the livelihoods of the people in his community who have bills to pay and families to feed.

“I have friends who have construction companies in the area,” he said. “They have one man on each respective job site. They have significant layout and materials for jobs that are just sitting there idle, unfinished. You know, are they going to survive this?”

Indian Lake is in Hamilton County, which according to their public health department, has just 4 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the lowest in the state. It has a smaller population but also a lot less testing. Only 53 people have been tested since the pandemic began.

Daisy Kelley in her garden in Indian Lake. The Hamilton County resident says she does not think the North Country is ready for an influx in visitors, which could lead to an influx of COVID-19 cases. Source: Photo courtesy Daisy Kelley

“I don’t think that the disease has run its course in the North Country yet,” said Daisy Kelley, who also lives in Indian Lake.

She feels the opposite of Elkin and doesn’t think the North Country is ready, a view shared by 35% of respondants in NCPR’s survey.

“There’s really not been enough testing in the rest of the North Country to have any true idea of what the numbers are,” she said.

Health officials have long warned of an undercount of cases in the region due to restrictions on testing, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made testing a key requirement for resuming business.

Joan Burke is a retired professor and director of the Newcomb Historical Museum in Essex County. She’s also been combing the state’s data with an eye on the North Country’s rate of infections.

She’s worried the region will attract people from across the state if it’s the first to reopen.

“It’s a tinderbox in a way” she said. “If we have tourism coming here — if we open up, we have golf courses, we have museums, [if] it seems as if we are going to be the only place that they can visit? Then people are going to come here because they’re desperate. And I think that’s a mistake. I think we will have many more cases.”

But of the people who responded to NCPR’s survey on restarting the economy, the majority fell somewhere in the middle. About 41% said they “somewhat agree” with the reopen, as long as its guided by state and local health data.

Peter S. Paine Jr. at his farm in Willsboro in Essex County. An attorney, Paine says he thinks the state should move forward cautiously with reopening. Source: Peter S. Paine

“Well, I think we’re sort of caught between a rock and a hard place here,” said Peter S. Paine a semi-retired attorney in Willsboro who lives with his wife and three dogs.

“I feel that we need to move forward carefully, and I think we have the ability to do it and the willingness to do it. So I feel it’s a risk worth taking provided the criteria that the governor has laid out are met,” he said.

Paine, who also serves as chairman of the board of a local bank, has seen a lot of small businesses suffering during this time, which has affected his view.

“Just in Willsboro, we’ve got two local restaurants that are kind of the heart-and-soul of the community, and they can only do take-out, and that has had an impact on them,” said Paine.

Robert Shepherd is a semi-retired researcher in Potsdam in St. Lawrence County. He had a kidney transplant 26 years ago and is in a high-risk category for the virus.

“Initially, I was just terrified of the situation, and felt death quite imminent, or likely as a result of the pandemic,” he said, chuckling softly.

Since then, Shepherd has grown less fearful but acknowledges any reopening won’t change much for him.

“If you listen to the small print after they say we’ll be opening up May 15, it’s: If you’re in a high risk group, don’t leave your house,” he said.

He says once things do start to unpause, it’s up to every individual to decide what they’re tolerance for risk is.

One thing we know — reopening will be a slow process and it could be months or more before the North Country resembles how it used to be.