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A “Catch-22” moment

By David Rogers. March 26, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC – It is a classic Catch-22 moment in U.S. history. Millions of Americans are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Although novelist Joseph Heller started writing his novel, “Catch-22,” in 1953 with World War II and the Korean conflict not even distant memories, he didn’t finish it until the book’s publication in 1961. Almost instantly labeled by literary critics as a “classic” and one of the more significant contributions to American literature, Heller’s examination of the absurdity of war and military life served to codify the phrase, “catch-22,” in the ranks of uniquely American jargon.

A simplified example of a Catch-22: “I have lost my glasses and need to find them, but I can’t find them without my glasses to see.” As Heller points out in his novel, there are parallels in war and warfare.

Don’t flee here.

Fast forward to the present. Amid reports that legions of urbanites are fleeing densely populated metropolitan areas for more rural environments to escape potential exposure to COVID-19, this week Watauga County announced a moratorium on renting hotel rooms, vacation rentals and other short-term lodging arrangements, indefinitely. Perhaps it was unspoken, but by effectively closing down the area’s hospitality industry. local officials are telling the city dwellers, “Don’t flee here.”

This is not a situation unique to the High Country. Earlier this week, the Boston Globe penned a story about tensions rising in New England resort havens like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod. The reporter interviewed a New York lawyer who has been “summering” in Martha’s Vineyard since he was a toddler. “There is no better place to practice social distancing than Martha’s Vineyard,” he told the Globe scribe, adding that he could sit out on a front porch, drink his coffee, and not see a soul for days.

The hope for the nomadic urbanites, of course, is that they increase their odds of escaping the coronavirus contagion if not exposed to so many people in the nation’s concentrations of people: the large towns and cities. If they don’t leave, they may well be damned to catching the virus, risking theirs and their loved ones’ lives.

I feel much safer in Blowing Rock than in Florida.

Especially the well-heeled folks with second homes in more seasonally appealing climes have made their way to those destinations a couple of months early this year. Locally, we spoke with one such seasonal resident on Thursday who had done just that. He said, “I feel we are much safer in Blowing Rock than in Florida.”

But Watauga County’s decision to impose a moratorium on short-term lodging is symptomatic of another form of damnation – that of full-time residents in the more rural havens telling the urbanites, “Don’t flee here.”

From the New England resorts to the Carolina coastal areas and even here in Blowing Rock and other mountain resort communities, there are reports of resentment among the “locals” and full-time residents. They complain that the more affluent urban refugees are arriving to buy up groceries and supplies from supermarket shelves, even hoarding such things as toilet paper that we take for granted in ordinary times. Perhaps more pointedly, they complain, “By coming to our town you are putting us at greater risk for catching the disease, too. And if and when you catch a COVID-19 infection here, you will overload a healthcare infrastructure that is not built to serve a large population.”

Without question, these are uncommon times we live in. It is hard to be critical of the many part-time residents with second homes in Blowing Rock who choose to start their “summering” a couple of months early this year. They pay taxes and have rights to use their properties when they want them, for whatever purpose.

Few people in this world are without compassion for others.

Given the COVID-19 infection risks the urban refugees bring to full-time residents, though, an elevated sense of resentment toward the non-property owner “invaders” is understandable. Toward that end, one has to wonder whether the regulatory prophylactic imposed by Watauga County doesn’t have a hole in it since it leaves open the opportunity for visitors to make temporary lodging arrangements if for longer than 30 days.  Realistically, few of those fleeing the larger metro areas are likely to do so just for a weekend, or even for a week or two given the widespread information that has been disseminated about COVID-19 so far and its long-term risk if a cure or vaccination is not soon found.

Few people in this world are without compassion for others. That’s why we sometimes cry at movies and more often at funerals.

So while welcoming those seeking refuge, are there other steps that can be taken to reduce the risks of a community-spread infection? For example, whether or not it is enforceable, should we have a requirement that people escaping the urban environs to our area of the world self-quarantine themselves for two weeks upon arrival?

When all is said and done, as a human race we are facing this pandemic together. We COULD be taking a “let what will happen, happen” approach: let the disease spread among us and see who (and how many) emerges at the end still alive.

Instead, our national, state and local leaders have taken the drastic steps of limiting human interactions in business, as well as socially. The path we have taken is proving expensive financially, economically, and even socially as we sacrifice profits, jobs, and pleasure.

We can only hope that our chosen path proves to preserve precious human capital for the long run of mankind’s existence.

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