What does a virus do? The answer depends on how one chooses to look.
Consider the effects of COVID-19 on a single infected person. At the immediately visible level, the body appears slowed down: fatigued, aching, congested. But under a microscopic lens, that body has been kicked into overdrive. Infected cells busily replicate the coronavirus’s genetic material, while the immune system rushes to destroy the invader.
A similar bifurcation emerges from how Western North Carolina as a whole has experienced the pandemic. The most obvious signs of infection — stay-at-home orders, canceled concerts, shuttered bars — have hampered physical flow. Yet COVID-19 has also accelerated many social trends, reshaping the body politic behind those closed doors.
Perhaps most worrying to the region’s long-term health is the increased inequality being driven by the coronavirus. Living wages were already a concern for much of WNC’s working class before 2020, but pandemic restrictions have kept many in low-paid jobs from earning a wage at all. Their hardship has shown through unprecedented demand at MANNA FoodBank, which has increased its food purchasing by 600% this year.
According to Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit research project based at Harvard University, employment among Buncombe County residents making less than $27,000 annually remained nearly 29% below January levels as of Oct. 15, the most recent date for which data is available. Meanwhile, employment among those making $60,000 or more per year had completely recovered from the start of the pandemic.
For those still fortunate enough to have work, the region’s already challenging housing market has become even more formidable. Demand for homes in Buncombe, as quantified by the Realtor.com Market Hotness Index, is higher now than it was a year ago, a trend partly driven by remote workers from urban areas relocating to the mountains. Keith Miller, the county’s tax assessor, recently characterized residential sales as “just crazy.”
Some of those homes are likely getting repurposed as lucrative short-term vacation rentals. Tourists worried about mingling with strangers in hotels have sought the perceived safety of Airbnb and other private rental platforms. Local STR revenues, already on the rise, have shot into the stratosphere: In October, the latest month with available data, STR sales were up more than 75% year-over-year, or roughly $6.6 million.
As also occurred throughout the country, WNC saw cultural life move increasingly online — where conversations too often fall victim to the algorithmic distortion of social media. Conservative and liberal communities continued their polarization into opposing tribes as the presidential election season wore on; basic facts about the coronavirus and measures to prevent its spread were caught in that political vortex.
Simultaneously, a loss of revenue due to COVID-19 closures slammed local media, reducing the flow of trusted information that might counter misleading online discourse. Mountain Xpress was no exception: In March, advertising sales declined by 55% in a matter of weeks, and the paper laid off seven employees in an effort to cut costs.
Xpress reached out to several community figures who have spent 2020 in the thick of these trends to understand more about how they’ve shaped WNC.
How has COVID-19 changed the way you do your job?
“At the start of the pandemic, Explore Asheville paused all traditional paid advertising — such as TV, radio and print ads — shifting to a plan that employed limited digital media, such as Facebook. The emphasis is on safety and the shared responsibility of visitors and residents to following public health protocols to ensure a safe and healthy experience.”
— Vic Isley, president and CEO, Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau
“More than anything, COVID-19 has made it more difficult for reporters to dedicate their time and resources to in-depth coverage. The pandemic raised important conversations about working conditions for those in health care, food processing and long-term care facilities, but the constant deluge of information has made investigating employers incredibly challenging. Reporters are pressed more than ever for breaking the latest need-to-know information at a time when newsrooms are facing furloughs and layoffs. There are numerous COVID-related stories that merit further inspection, [public information] requests and follow-ups. That unshaken focus costs a reporter precious time and resources that were already scarce before the pandemic. We’re all doing the best we can to cover our bases.”
— Cass Herrington, “Morning Edition” host and news reporter, Blue Ridge Public Radio
“As a result of COVID-19, I find that my mornings are consumed with data: the latest state, county and local cases; our COVID patient census; [intensive care unit] capacity; [personal protective equipment] supplies; and a multitude of other data points that must factor into how we operate as a health care system. This hasn’t really surprised me, but it is definitely a daily routine that I don’t see going away anytime soon.”
— Dr. David Ellis, chief medical officer, Pardee UNC Health Care
How can government officials best respond to increased polarization?
“Listen and assume good intention. Most people want the same things for their children but feel that politicians just don’t hear them.”
— Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe
“By being honest and welcoming. I reject the idea that there are two sets of people in America. Polarization comes from fear. I encourage my team to be patient and reassuring even in the face of anger and I strive for that myself. I know it makes a difference.”
— Corinne Duncan, director of elections, Buncombe County
What repercussions has increased inequality had on your work?
“We have been doing a lot of work this year to stop evictions but we expect to see a significant increase in both evictions and home foreclosures in 2021. It’s going to be a long road back to stable living for a great many people, and the need for free civil legal aid will continue to be great, if not continue to increase, in the coming year.”
— Jackie Kiger, chief operations officer, Pisgah Legal Services
“Pisgah Legal Services has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking our services during the pandemic. PLS responded by increasing programming to respond to needs around unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, financial assistance and eviction prevention. PLS increased staff, including bilingual staff, to respond to the increased demand. We also increased our advocacy to make sure that government resources were accessed by WNC counties and cities to benefit the people living here.
“I think mid-2021 we will be safe from the pandemic, but that we will experience the economic and social effects for many more years to come. WNC may need to reinvent itself into a place with much less reliance on service-sector employment.”
— Robin Merrell, managing attorney, Pisgah Legal Services
“I think one story that has been overlooked is the pressure on working parents, working mothers especially, to quit their jobs in order to provide child care and distance learning support. At MANNA, we have seen a huge spike in the number of families with children who are needing support for the first time ever; many of these are families that have one parent who has either lost their income or been forced to quit a job in order to accommodate for the needs of their family.”
— Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications, MANNA FoodBank