State Watch

Rural areas with vacation homes more susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks

Greg Nash

Rural communities with vacation homes are experiencing outbreaks of the coronavirus at a faster pace than rural areas without seasonal housing, according to a new study, suggesting residents of big cities who flee to the countryside are bringing the virus with them.

The survey found that in rural counties where more than 25 percent of the housing units are inhabited only part time, the average number of COVID-19 cases per capita is more than twice as high as the number of cases in counties where a greater percentage of the population lives there year-round.

Rural communities with high levels of vacation homes even have higher rates of infection than urban counties.

Jessica Carson, a research assistant professor at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, who authored the study, said the numbers show that rural counties that are attractive destination spots — either because they are near ski areas or beachfronts — are drawing visitors despite shelter-in-place orders.

“One [reason for the higher case counts] could certainly be that folks are coming in to hunker down in short-term rentals, seasonal rentals or family properties,” Carson said. Another, she added: “It’s reasonable to expect that day tourism and foot traffic in those places is driven up.”

Carson said unusually large clusters of coronavirus cases are showing up in counties with ski resorts in Western states, in counties around the Great Lakes and especially in Michigan, and in northern New England.

One such cluster is in Eagle County, Colorado, home of Vail and other ski resorts. The county accounts for less than 1 percent of Colorado’s population, and nearly 7 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. Another cluster is in West Virginia’s two most eastern counties, those closest to the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas, which together account for nearly a quarter of the state’s confirmed cases so far.

Leaders in tourism hot spots around the country have urged visitors to stay away during the coronavirus outbreak.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) last month urged visitors to stay away, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) ordered ski slopes closed. North Carolina’s Outer Banks have closed to visitors, and residents in southern Utah asked the National Park Service to close Zion National Park. Commissioners in two northern Minnesota counties voted to shut down access to a river popular with tourists in hopes of keeping visitors away.

Though urban areas have suffered most from the coronavirus, Carson said residents in rural communities are more likely to be susceptible to the worst symptoms of the COVID-19 disease. Rural Americans tend to be older than those who live in urban areas, and they are more likely to suffer from underlying conditions that the virus makes worse.

“A lot of these communities are retirement communities,” Carson said. “These rates could be driven in part by the demography of these areas.”

Tags Colorado Coronavirus Hawaii Jared Polis West Virginia

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