Community Health

Lyon County Judge Executive Wade White knew it was only a matter of time.

He knew the COVID-19 pandemic was serious and that it was spreading, White just didn’t expect it’d come to Lyon County, a tight-knit community of 8,300 in western Kentucky, so soon.

But it has. Gov. Andy Beshear confirmed on Tuesday that a 69-year-old man tested positive with the disease, one of 29 in the state at last count. On Wednesday, White said the Lyon County man is on home isolation and in fair condition.

For some, having a confirmed case of COVID-19 in their community is a bit surreal. But many, like White, understood it wasn’t a matter of “if,” but “when.” And now, the focus is about controlling the spread, and helping out whoever needs it.

The pandemic was putting a stop to regular life even before the man tested positive. Schools, churches, shops and more are closing. People are losing jobs and stressing about the uncertainty ahead. In small towns like the Lyon County seat of Eddyville, the pressures are acute.

“We’ve got to be wise, not paralyzed,” White said. 

That is White’s motto at the moment. He trusts the residents have enough common sense to know to wash their hands, keep some distance and limit their outings. He is encouraging people to support local restaurants and stores as much as possible by ordering take-out and buying gift cards.

Eddyville’s small business owners don’t have the political pull to lobby Congress, he said, or pressure the White House for bailouts and stimulus packages like mega-corporations do.

Paul Akridge owns Akridge Farm Supply, a hardware store that’s operated in Eddyville since 1982. The store is the town center, of sorts, with people constantly coming and going, sometimes just to talk. But now, he’s trying to limit the number of people in the store to just 10, per the Centers for Disease Control recommendation. He is encouraging people to call ahead or place orders online, and opt for curbside pickup. For residents that can’t or don’t want to get out, he also offers delivery.

This week, Akridge said business was still churning along. But Wednesday, he noticed a slowdown. Partly, he expects, it’s due to the rainy weather — but also because people are heeding the call to avoid crowds and stay home.

“It’s something we’re all going to have to deal with,” he said. 

His business is long established, and likely will be able to weather the slowdown, but he isn’t without worry. Most of his spring and summer stock was ordered months ago, and now he’s got a store full of product he’s unsure he will be able to move.

He said the summer months are “like Christmas” as tourists flock to Eddyville, Kuttawa, Grand Rivers and the nearby marinas like Hu-B’s, Eddy Creek and Buzzard Rock. And as people get outside to take care of their lawns and gardens, grass will need mowing, and most years, they buy the high-dollar mowers Akridge keeps in stock. 

He wonders if that will change, and if people will continue to buy the plants he gets from a family-owned nursery in town.

“You just don’t know how things are going to go,” he said. “We’re just going to have to be careful and smart.”

Akridge doesn’t plan on shutting down, though. That’s for sure. Too many people depend on his store, and his staff know that and are willing to sacrifice to make sure people have what they need.

“We’re like family,” he said. “Everybody in town is like that.”

Just down the road from the hardware store, Randy Fraliex and his mother Rose run Our Daily Bread, a small bakery and restaurant. Most days, they’re pretty busy, especially for breakfast and lunch. But they’ve adhered to Gov. Andy Beshear’s order. On Monday evening, they stopped serving patrons in their dining room. 

Fraliex said the restaurant is taking carry-out orders and offering a 15% discount for every order. What’s more, people who bring in a canned good to donate to the local food pantry get an additional 5% off.

“We just want to help out as much as we can,” he said. “It’s not just one person affected, it’s the whole community, the whole area, the whole country, the whole world.”

He’s optimistic. On social media, people offer support and they share his posts about the deals and daily offerings. But social media doesn’t pay the bills, or his staff. He knows the coming weeks and months will test the business, if the shutdowns continue. They depend on regular business, especially the summer tourism boom. His employees are adjusting to scheduling changes, and getting fewer hours, for now, but the future is unknown.

“I’m not going to close, unless I absolutely have to,” he said. “We’re playing everything by ear, it’s the only thing you can do.”

Lyon County is home to the northern shores of Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, where people flock to fish and boat. The county also includes the upper reaches of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, where people come to watch bald eagles, hike and bike.

Tourism is a central piece of the economy. But as the pandemic spreads and people isolate themselves, the businesses that depend on tourism worry.

Kartik Patel is the general manager of the Relax Inn and Suites in Kuttawa, a small lake-town in northern Lyon County. In the summer, vacancies are rare, and his parking lots are filled with boats.

Patel is also a member of the Lake Barkley Tourist Commission. He said the lake tourism industry has already been hit hard by the Asian Carp invasion, which has decimated some trophy fish species. The COVID-19 pandemic only adds to the stress.

“If people don’t stay with us, we don’t have income, which in turn makes it difficult for us to pay our employees,” he said. “The bottom line: It hurts all of us.”

Patel hasn’t cut any jobs, yet, and he hopes the state and federal government take heed of the coming slow down for businesses like his and follows through with some type of relief package.

White, the Judge Executive, said he will certainly push state and federal lawmakers for relief and is happy to hear those talks already happening.

But any relief isn’t likely to come quick. In the meantime, he’s hopeful that residents in his town are eager to help. He said the sheriff has already agreed to help deliver prescriptions for people and he’s been quick to post videos to his Facebook page updating residents on changes to necessary services like waste removal and senior services.

“We’ve got all kinds of heroes working for us just in this little town,” he said. “We’ll get through it.”

Editor’s note: Jacob Ryan grew up in Eddyville, Kentucky, so he’s known everyone in this story for pretty much his whole life. Kartik Patel is a friend; Paul Akridge was his Little League coach. Ryan says they won multiple championships.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.