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Appalachian Strength In The Face Of A Pandemic Devastating Local Economies

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Nicole Musgrave
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Adline Allison (Left) on guitar and Larah Helayne on drums at Girls Rock Whitesburg.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting all of our lives, whether you’re working from home, worried for your health or unexpectedly out of a job. PBS’s beloved Mr. Rogers often quoted his mother saying to “look for the helpers” during a crisis. We’ve been looking and have found that there’s no shortage of those in our region.

People are struggling to make ends meet and keep their lights on, but this episode of “Inside Appalachia” focuses on resiliency and mutual aid. Appalachian communities have weathered previous economic hardships. Those who know Appalachia’s labor history understand the idea of working class people joining forces. From what we’ve seen, one way we’ll get through this is by relying on each other. 

In This Episode:

Small Businesses Struggling

Before the pandemic, many people in Appalachia worked in restaurants, stores, hotels and in seasonal tourism jobs.

The majority of West Virginia employers, public and private sectors combined, are considered small businesses, according to WorkForce West Virginia. Nearly 86 percent of total employers in the state employ fewer than 500 people, as of late 2019.

Under the federal CARES Act passed by Congress in March, and another aid package signed into law in April, federal aid is available to help small businesses across the country. But the first loan program ran out of money shortly after it went online. Some of the funding went to larger companies while many smaller businesses lost out.   

Some business owners applied for federal assistance through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, a program to help businesses with payroll, debts and bills that could have been covered had the pandemic not occurred. 

The Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan is supposed to keep businesses from laying off employees. Our reporters spoke with more than a dozen small business owners in Appalachia to find out about the application process. In this episode, we hear what business owners shared with our newsroom reporters.

The second round of PPP applications began April 27. According to the Small Business Administration, within two days, 960,000 PPP loans were approved across the U.S. in the latest round of funding. More than half of these loans went to smaller banks. 

The agency also offered an eight-hour window when only small bankers could apply for loans to increase opportunities for small businesses to get their loan application submitted. As of May 1, when this show was recorded, the PPP still was taking loan applications. 

Mutual Aid

One group hit particularly hard during this pandemic is younger people who worked hourly jobs. In this episode we hear a story by Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Sydney Boles about several groups of young people across central Appalachia who’ve banded together to offer each other support. 

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Credit Emily Allen / WVPB
From A Hatfield McCoy ATV trail head in Logan County, in October 2019. The trails have been closed since March 20, 2020, due to efforts to promote social distancing.

Reopening for Tourism

As businesses prepared to reopen, some tourist attractions in southern West Virginia wondered what COVID-19 meant for their upcoming summer season. Caitlin Tan and Emily Allen reported how some of these businesses were adapting, how they’re struggling, and what it all meant for their communities.

Emails In A Pandemic

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Credit Courtesy Jessica Salfia

Most Americans received a number of emails in the past two months trying to sell them something or ask for support for a cause. Many of these messages framed their pitch on suffering and discomfort and offered some sort of product or political cause as the solution. 

Jessica Salfia, a creative writing teacher in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, turned those pitches into a poem. After she posted her work, “The First Lines of Emails I’ve Received While Quarantining” on Twitter, it went viral. As of May 1, it had more than 46,000 shares and 169,000 likes. 

Salfia spoke with our Associate Producer Eric Douglas about the poem. Listen to their conversation and hear Salfia read and read her poem aloud. 

Food Supply Chain

Local farmers across Appalachia have an advantage when it comes to the meat processing supply chain. According to the latest numbers from the National Agricultural Statistics Service there are about 23,000 farms in West Virginia and most of them are family-owned, supporting themselves from what they produce. 

Our southern West Virginia Coalfields reporter Caitlin Tan spoke with one farming family to learn more. 

Domestic Violence

One especially dark byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic is the rise in domestic violence reports. Nationally, one in four women and one in nine men experience intimate partner violence – which can include physical injury or battery, psychological intimidation, emotional abuse or sexual violence from an intimate partner according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

If you need support, or want to report domestic violence, please visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline online or call 1-800-799-SAFE. 

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Inspiring Young Women

Girls Rock Whitesburg” is a music camp for female, gender-fluid, non-binary, and trans youth. The program, located in Whitesburg, Ky., is designed to empower young women and girls through rock music.

Over the course of a week, campers learned an electric instrument, formed a band and wrote songs. At the end of the camp, they performed in front of a live audience. Last summer, Folkways Corps Reporter Nicole Musgrave followed two campers who reinvented a traditional protest song.

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Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Blue Dot Sessions and Marisa Anderson. 

We had help producing inside appalachia this week from the Ohio Valley ReSource, which is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Report For America, and the Coalfields Reporting Project, which is supported by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Glynis Board. We had help editing our show this week from Helen Barrington, from PMJA’s Editor Corps. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi and Molly Born also provided production assistance.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County who graduated from Marshall University with a degree in journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. He is an author, writing both nonfiction and fiction, including a series of thriller novels set in locations around the world. You can reach Eric at edouglas@wvpublic.org