Verden, Okla., Population 508, narrowly avoided having to cancel a city council meeting due to lack of quorum earlier this month. Three of the five board members had been sick or in quarantine, and Oklahoma ended the state of emergency this allowed for remote meetings, said Tessa Upton, the city clerk.
Ms Upton, who is one of two people who work at the main town hall office, said she had asked residents to drop their water bill payments through a crack in the door largely to protect the city’s utility billing clerk. If residents must enter, she said, they were asked to wear masks — a request often ignored by residents of the Grady County town, where only 36% of the population is fully vaccinated.
“We try to stay safe here,” she said. “If we go down, we won’t have water.”
The strains are the effects of short-term pandemic crises that come on top of demographic trends that have occurred over decades as work disappears in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing, and young people leave to seek jobs. better opportunities elsewhere.
“Longer term, we’ve seen very significant economic challenges in rural America as the urban-rural divide has widened,” said Brooks Rainwater, director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. The pandemic, he said, has compounded those issues by exacerbating existing labor shortages, making it harder for smaller city agencies to quickly staff up if people are sick or decide to to leave.
“Rural governments are small by design,” he said.
Marvell was never a big city, but longtime residents say it was a livelier community. In the middle of the last century, a suburban railway stopped downtown, where there were, at one time, three hotels. Then commuter trains became freight trains, and by the end of the 1970s that was gone too.
Today, the town’s two grocery stores and three clothing stores are gone. Almost all of the remaining businesses – including a handful of convenience store chains and gas stations – line the highway that takes travelers to Helena, the county seat and home of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. The gathering brings together hundreds of thousands of music lovers hoping to experience the Delta blues at the region’s biggest annual event.
(Marvell’s hope of attracting tourists is the rustic, wood-sided childhood home of Levon Helm, the former drummer and lead singer of rock band The Band. The house opened to visitors in 2019 after he moved from a smaller outpost known as Turkey Scrape in Marvell, where Mr Helm attended school.)