HOT SPRINGS — Tate and Samantha Smith began 2020 riding a steady local economy.

Tate’s welding job kept him busy, while Samantha had risen to become a manager at the Duck-In Deli & Market, a hopping convenience store just across the street from the Bath County’s biggest attraction and employer, the luxury Omni Homestead Resort.

But when the novel Coronavirus pandemic hit, the couple found their livelihoods in jeopardy. The Duck-In cut back to just two employees, and Samantha was laid off. Tate was transferred from a job in nearby Covington to one in Fluvanna County, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, before he too was laid off in May. The sudden loss of employment shocked the two 20-somethings.

“I was a little hurt at first,” Samantha Smith said. “I didn’t understand it: steady work, 40 hours (per week) for a long time, and then it all of a sudden just hit.”

The Smiths are part of the Coronavirus paradox of rural Virginia — Bath County has no confirmed COVID-19 cases, yet the unemployment rate soared to a state-high 20.5 percent in April, before dropping back to 15.8 percent in May. State-ordered pandemic restrictions have stirred community tensions in a region already burdened with decades of job losses and population decline.

In the largely white and conservative county — Republican candidate Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 42 points here in the 2016 election — many remain doubtful of government interventions.

“I’m more of the philosophy that you can’t force the virus to shut down,” said local businessman Pat Haynes. He believes moderate, common sense measures — more social distancing and monitoring nursing homes — are necessary.

But, Haynes added, Gov. Ralph Northam “was putting everyone under the same description, which made no sense in Bath County. With the government, it seems like the only way they can kill an ant is with a sledgehammer.”

Bath County’s eye-popping unemployment rate stemmed largely from the Homestead’s decision in mid-March to furlough workers, reduce hours, and eventually suspend operations entirely.

Hundreds of resort workers were laid off, and local businesses have suffered.

Tammy and Dave Hahn, who own the Vine Cottage Inn located next door to the Homestead, entered the spring season with their March bookings 74 percent ahead of 2019.

But beginning on March 11, “we had massive cancellations,” said Tammy Hahn. “Everything for the end of the month fell out. All of April fell out. Then they started cancelling into May. Then the phone just stopped ringing. No reservations came, nothing.”

Christie Ford, the Homestead’s director of retail, was furloughed from the resort. Unlike many others, she had a fallback. Her family owns the local IGA supermarket, which has seen business surge during the pandemic.

“I was furloughed at the end of March, and I came to help here,” Ford said during an interview at the grocery store. “This was basically the only option for anybody in the county to get food or groceries and it was crazy. Crazy. I think people were scared and didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from, or what was going to happen. For days and days, this store would just be wiped out.”

Ford, her husband Jeff, her son Jonah, who manages the store, and their employees put in extra hours to keep the shelves stocked and county residents fed. A few local residents donated money to pay for food for those in need. Christie Ford teared up talking about what she called “the best experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

Ford was called back to work at the Homestead ahead of its June 29 reopening. The resort plans to operate at limited capacity. Infection rates have spiked across the South, and many residents worry about the long-term damage the pandemic will have on tourism in Bath County and other rural localities.

The region’s experience of the pandemic stands apart from the rest of the commonwealth. The virus has spread quickly in denser regions like northern Virginia. It has struck minority communities hard. For example, Latinos account for only 10 percent of Virginia’s population but are about 45 percent of its Coronavirus cases and 35 percent of hospitalizations, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The economic pain pandemic in rural Virginia, however, has been substantial. The crisis has crushed parts of the commonwealth struggling with industrial decline.

Southwestern Virginia’s coal-producing counties never fully recovered from the Great Recession as the coal industry swooned in the face of competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

Parts of Southside Virginia haven’t yet bounced back from the loss of tobacco and textiles.

The largely rural Alleghany Highlands, including Bath County, have struggled too.

“Outside of the coalfields, we’ve lost population in this part of the state faster than anywhere else,” said Virginia Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Hot Springs. A turning point was the deadly 1980 fire at the Hercules fiber factory, one of the region’s major employers, he said. “We’ve lost population every day since.”

The wide range in unemployment across Virginia stems largely from how the pandemic has affected different economic sectors, said Timothy Aylor, senior economist at the Virginia Employment Commission. Rural areas tend to have a higher concentration of hospitality and retail jobs. Employment in the leisure and hospitality sector — which includes hotel, restaurant, nightlife and entertainment workers — fell 41 percent from the previous year, while the information sector shrank only 2.7 percent and the finance sector grew 1.4 percent.

Bath County’s economy and local tax base are heavily reliant on the Homestead Resort.

Lodging and meals taxes were down by more than 90 percent from the previous year, according to the county.

“The local brewery, the little shops, the restaurants right down there in Hot Springs — they’re hopping when the Homestead’s busy. When the Homestead’s quiet, it’s a lot different,” said Tammy Hahn.

The Homestead often refers spillover customers to the Hahn’s Vine Cottage Inn. As Virginia has reopened, tourists are booking reservations again.

“We had one come in today for tonight, and another call earlier for Saturday,” Hahn said recently. “That’s great we’ve made two reservations today for this month — we’re thrilled — but that’s a far cry from where we had anticipated being.”

Unemployed workers have been buoyed by government support, but the future is filled with uncertainty. The $600 weekly federal supplements to state unemployment benefits end in July.

With COVID-19 cases spiking in southern states, the slowdown in tourism could last through the peak summer season.

The State Corporation Commission has banned utility service shutoffs through the end of August. A statewide moratorium on evictions expired June 28.

Many who lost their jobs have benefited from Virginia’s 2019 expansion of Medicaid. According to the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, 426,613 adults have been newly enrolled in Medicaid, with about 17,000 added in April and about 8,500 in May.

However, advocates for economic justice are bracing for what will happen when the federal unemployment benefits stop and the bans on evictions and utility shut-offs expire.

“We do have these moratoriums, but once they get lifted, people are going to start being evicted and losing their homes,” said Jay Speer, executive director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

“There are so many people living paycheck to paycheck. It seems like we have an unsustainable economy, when after being a month out of work, the whole thing collapses.”

Major George Hackbarth, director of the Salvation Army of Covington, said the organization expects a heavy demand for meals and cash assistance later this summer.

‘When your normal bill is $400, and now you’ve got three months’ worth, you’re looking at over $1,000 for just utilities, plus the rent,” Hackbarth said.

“These are working people who are barely making it as it is. Now suddenly, when they get hit with all these bills, they’re going to be hurt bad.”

With its COVID-19 infection rate holding steady, Virginia has pressed ahead with Phase 3 of its reopening.

Bath County is showing signs of life. On a recent Friday, maintenance crews worked the grounds around the Homestead, and a few cars with out-of-state plates returned to the streets.

But residents still worry about the future of the county’s biggest employer. The Homestead’s parent company, TRT Holdings, owns Omni Hotels and fitness chain Gold’s Gym, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May. The company has committed to spend tens of millions to renovate the Homestead and address decades of deferred maintenance.

A spokesperson for the Homestead declined interview requests.

“The future of the hotel was so uncertain,” said Haynes, the local developer and business owner. “With the commitment to renovation, we were breathing a huge sigh of relief. Now, I’m not going to say we’re back to square one — I think they’ll still do it — but it’s raised a whole lot of uncertainty and concern.”

Haynes said COVID-19’s recent surge has been “disconcerting” but a long shutdown in Virginia could cause as much damage as the virus itself.

Samantha Smith is back to working six hours per week at the deli. Her husband Tate is going to North Carolina for a welding job, and she’ll join him on her days off.

Deeds said his office still fields several calls each day from people struggling to retain their employment, worried about paying their bills and concerned about their long term ability to find jobs. And there’s no real end in sight.

“Honestly, my sense is we are in this for the long haul,” Deeds said. ”Until a vaccine is developed, there’s going to be some level of pandemic and some level of closures.”


Christie Ford, center, and the staff at Valley Supermarket IGA in Mitchelltown worked extra hours to keep shelves stocked and Bath County residents fed during the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo Courtesy Mason Adams/Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism)