With the COVID-19 pandemic bearing down, Crawford County leaders banded together to weather the storm. The approach paid dividends but a fourth coronavirus wave is driving up cases and making it more difficult for communities to stay united.
Shawn Naccarato remembers that sense of approaching dread he felt in the spring of 2020.
While life in Crawford County, where Naccarato lives and works, had yet to be impacted at the time, the COVID-19 pandemic was overwhelming the world and churning out death in its wake.
There were TV news images of patients on ventilators and health care workers laboring to the point of exhaustion. The world, it seemed, was shutting down.
“As we looked around the world – even across the United States – you saw what was happening. We could see it was going to be happening here and it could hit us so hard,” says Naccarato, chief strategy officer for Pittsburg State University. “We thought we needed to do everything we could. There are only so many resources within a community like ours. That was our challenge, because resources are so limited.”
Pittsburg is the most populated town in Crawford County, whose eastern boundary is the state line between Kansas and Missouri. The area is nicknamed the Little Balkans because many immigrants from southeastern Europe settled in the heart of the Osage slopes and the Cherokee lowlands.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, southeast Kansas was mining country and a hot spot for socialism. In the county seat of Girard, Julius Wayland published the national socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, and in 1904 he commissioned Upton Sinclair to write a novel about immigrant workers in the Chicago meatpacking houses, “The Jungle.” (These days, you’re way more likely to find a fried chicken joint in Crawford County than a card-carrying socialist, and Donald Trump easily won the county in the 2020 presidential election with 60% of the vote.)
But despite the county’s historic independent streak, there’s also a history of coming together.
Each generation since has learned to be tough and work the odds in overcoming the impossible.
A pandemic approaches
A year ago in May, Naccarato had reason to be worried because several of the counties in southeast Kansas have traditionally ranked among the least healthy in the state, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which each year releases county health rankings.
Of the 105 counties in Kansas, at least a dozen in the southeast are rated in the last third of healthy outcomes. It is also one of the poorest areas of Kansas. Crawford County is ranked 83rd with 20% of its children living in poverty and 23% living in single-parent households. The per capita income for residents in Crawford County is $23,091, according to U.S. Census statistics for 2019; that’s compared with $46,517 in Johnson County, the state’s richest county.
Southeast Kansas residents are also more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, heart disease and diabetes, says Pittsburg City Commissioner Dawn McNay, who also serves as the director of development at the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas.
COVID was a particular threat to those residents whose health was already compromised.
So, officials did something fairly unique in city and county dynamics – they pooled resources from medical, educational, governmental and business entities to tackle the pandemic together.
They named it the Crawford County Recovery Task Force.
The task force was launched in May 2020. It was to coordinate messages and direction to make sure all 38,000 residents in Crawford County – of whom 20,000 live in Pittsburg – were receiving the same recommendations.
The same information conveyed to Pittsburg was delivered in Frontenac, Girard and Arma, three of the other population centers in Crawford County.
“We were trying to thread the needle between people who had the choice of pulling up in their basements and not leaving – which can destroy the local economy – or overwhelming our local health care system,” Naccarato says.
Ignoring the pandemic was not an option.
In Girard, the city clerk’s office shut down for a year. Residents could still pay bills and conduct city-related business through the drive-through, Karen Buck, Girard city clerk, says – but precautions were taken.
“I would be one of those people who would have said our office will never close,” Buck says. “But we did, and we followed health guidelines and were still able to do business. We are back to normal now.”
But Buck’s experiences suggest that even though the Crawford County Recovery Task Force tried to cut a wide swath, it didn’t reach everyone. Buck says she personally was unaware of the task force.
“People here don’t get into a whole lot of conversation with folks around here. They pay their bills and go about their way,” Buck says.
In Frontenac, Mayor David Fornelli says the task force’s work was vital to the town of 3,400 residents.
“We looked to them for guidance on everything,” Fornelli says. “Everything came down from the state to the county and the county to our city. They kept us up to date with everything, meetings and whatnot. It made it easy for us. We would literally ask them questions and they would give us answers. Everybody in the county followed the same message.”
Working through the virus
The task force was a godsend to business owners, says Joe Dellasega, co-owner of U.S. Awards in Pittsburg. “The larger companies had HR (human resource) directors or had resources that had dedicated HR teams and had national HR presence,” Dellasega says. “So, somebody like myself, who doesn’t have an HR department, could jump on these calls once a week and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ And ask, ‘What’s the policy if somebody at work gets COVID?’ There were a lot of people dialed in on a weekly basis to listen to get the best business practices.”
Their coordinated leadership team paid off in many ways.
“We have so many different forms or levels of government with the city, municipalities, health, county, local chamber of commerce groups and schools; we believed they could all be going in different directions,” Naccarato says.
The last was not an option.
“We’ve worked so hard to build up and grow Pittsburg and Crawford County,” Naccarato says. “We didn’t want anything to get decimated.”.
Naccarato became the co-chairman of the task force. Jay Byers, deputy city manager of the city of Pittsburg, is the other co-chairman.
“We have developed the habit of when we are confronted with issues to reach out to our partners and our community,” Byers says.
Indeed, about a decade ago, the genesis for various entities working together began when local leaders began envisioning what their county and communities might look like in the near future, Naccarato says. That group is still around, Imagine Pittsburg 2030.
Its members addressed health, economic disparities and potential growth areas for the county.
“We are used to having conversations,” Naccarato says. “And so, we quickly launched the Crawford County task force to get all the core strategic entities to the table every week.
“When the global pandemic came, we’d already been inclined to that sort of leadership approach and response.”
Some of the key people on the team – such as Naccarato, Byers and Dellasega – are alumni of Kansas Leadership Center programs.
The 30-member-plus task force had as its focus preventing the local health care infrastructure from being overwhelmed and working to mitigate any negative economic impacts locally.
Its focal points included public health and containment, government and business relations, recovery funding, economic impact and recovery, and marketing and communications.
The members met once a week by Zoom.
An outgrowth was Crawford County United, whereby local businesses were encouraged to take a pledge to follow safe practices and recommendations set out in local, state and federal health guidelines, with distancing, wearing masks and practicing good hygiene. More than 50 businesses took the pledge and received decals that could be placed in windows indicating their businesses were safe to receive the public. The task force modeled the Crawford County United Pledge on similar initiatives that were launched this past year in Lawrence and Topeka.
“We felt that was a big success,” says McNay, who was also Pittsburg’s mayor when the task force was formed. “What we are working with now is the Pledge 2.0 … continued testing and recognition for employers who have their staff vaccinated.”
The task force also encouraged Crawford County residents to get vaccinated.
Riding out a tough wave
Despite the task force’s efforts, the fourth wave of the coronavirus has not been kind to Crawford County.
It could have been worse.
As of late August 2021, 205 people in Crawford County are actively in isolation with positive cases and 615 in quarantine; 102 residents have died since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020.
More than 24,000 have received at least one dose of the vaccine in a county with nearly 39,000 residents, according to the county’s website.
If the county were a college student and he was grading a test, Naccarato says, “we are fair. Crawford County itself has fared fairly well.”
By no means is that an “A” but it’s better than other Kansas counties and the neighboring state of Missouri.
“Our vaccination rates are higher,” Naccarato says. “That’s one thing the task force and all of the revenue stakeholders have been trying to collectively push for.”
But that only goes so far when surrounding counties and areas are struggling with a surge in the pandemic.
“The strain, right now, on our hospital system is pretty tight,” Naccarato says.
Public health officials are hoping the fourth wave being driven by the Delta variant may be cresting – but the numbers are still high, Naccarato said.
College students have recently returned to campus and the virus may do yet another uptick.
“I think there is a concern because we have introduced 6,000 people – many from other places –back into our community and it makes sense there might be some spread,” Naccarato says.
The pandemic has strained local healthcare workers.
“And so, my thing right now is how do we protect our hospital system – that’s what I think is the most important thing, because the unvaccinated are making choices.”
There is a larger divide now, Naccarato says, between those who have been vaccinated and those who are not.
“A lot of folks are already dug in on where they are going to be, and we can’t do much to convince people. But unfortunately, the reality is – reality sometimes is not a graceful teacher. I think we are at a point and place where unfortunately the virus is going to have to rip through people’s families and friends for them to get to a place that they say this is real.”
Younger people are now struggling with the virus.
All school districts in Crawford County require masks – but not without some parents upset and angry.
The division “is tearing at the fabric that unites us,” he says. “At the end of the day, we have got to be able to progress as a community and as a region and I’m afraid these divisions are becoming so entrenched.”
Each week, the county still holds the Zoom meetings of all schools, medical and business leaders.
“There is no doubt in my mind that things would be worse if we didn’t have them.”
An elusive normal
Dellasega says that although he was not on the task force, his company, U.S. Awards, was actively involved in producing masks. Since 1953, the company has been producing school award certificates, chenille letters for letter jackets and other items for schools.
Dellasega, and his brother, Doug, co-own the company.
“We quickly pivoted to making masks,” Dellasega says. “When the pandemic hit, we literally were shut down. We continued to pay our employees. When we brought them back, all states were shut down, all schools. We went on – but making masks.
“We brought in sewing machines. Soon schools were placing orders for masks and because of the good Lord, we were blessed with a lot of mask orders. We made masks all the way up through October.”
Now, production has returned to normal.
“There was a lot of discussion of what was the best business practices for when we do open back up, and we would jump on the conference calls to hear,” Dellasega says.
But for some in the community, normal is still proving elusive.
When it was built in 1889-90, the Hotel Stilwell symbolized the optimism and energy of a young, growing industrial mining community. Named after Arthur Stilwell – the founder of the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad, the hotel reflected stability, the modern world and luxury.
It was the social center for Pittsburg, known for its distinctive architecture which includes a shallow glass dome and cast-iron columns in the lobby.
Through the years, its guests would include the likes of Clarence Darrow, lead attorney in the Scopes Monkey Trial; Kansas governor Henry J. Allen who negotiated a mining strike from the hotel; U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, during World War II, glider pilots being trained at Atkinson Municipal Airport in Pittsburg.
One hundred and thirty years later, the hotel is still a landmark in Pittsburg and is the oldest building in downtown. Hotel rooms have been renovated and converted over into a place for 44 low-income housing mixed with market rate apartments. The building now houses a restaurant, ice cream shop, barber and jewelry store. The Timmons Ballroom is a place for weddings and special events.
The pandemic placed a toll on the residents, said Darlene Brown, executive director of the Stilwell Heritage and Educational Foundation, which oversees the building.
“We shut down, we canceled anything that was booked,” Brown says. “It was a strain on everybody.”
Tenants were asked to wear masks.
The building is currently still locked to the public, Brown said earlier this summer.
Did it work?
A year after the task force was formed, there are barometers showing the weekly Zoom meetings paid off.
Neighborhood restaurants are busy. A new Dairy Queen is being built. Concerts have begun again in Pittsburg. Pittsburg State has had sports events. Four housing developments are under construction.
“In Crawford County, we don’t have a ton of resources, so when we have issues we have to pool our resources together and try to coordinate things,” says Byers. “It was hard on people. And people pushed back and didn’t want to wear the mask. But a lot of people overcame that. I’m pretty proud of that. There is a strong independence to it. We started realizing that … this is something we do for everybody. I’m wearing a mask not because the government is making you do it but because it is the right thing to do in this circumstance.”
Byers says there is proof it worked.
Pittsburg’s sales tax collections did not go down in 2020 – they went up more than 3%.
And in the first four months of 2021, tax receipts are up 9.5% compared with last year, Byers says.
Ideally, the task force leaders would like more residents to receive vaccinations.
“Right now, the numbers of vaccines have stalled,” McNay says. “One of the things the task force can do is go out and reach the individuals who maybe didn’t have access the first time or are still on the fence.”
But some of the most vulnerable residents – 78% of people 65 and older – have been vaccinated; 42% of Crawford Countians have been fully vaccinated and 47% have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“We’ve worked with 39 different businesses to go to the employer and vaccinate their staff,” McNay says.
Crawford County received more than $7 million in pandemic relief funding through the state.
“We worked with the county commissioners to educate the business community on what was available to help them identify and allocate the money,” McNay says. “That and educating the community on COVID precautions.”
Life in Crawford County
The pandemic brought Crawford County’s most famed local restaurants to a halt. And the journey back to normal hasn’t been easy.
Lana Brooks has been at Chicken Mary’s for 52 years. She is the manager and has never had a year like 2020. Crawford County is known internationally for its “chicken wars” between the Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s restaurants, which have been competitors down the street from each other for nearly eight decades.
In March 2020, both Chicken Mary’s and Chicken Annie’s closed down.
“We had no inside business at all,” Brooks says. “We were allowed – which we never had before – curbside service. So to stay in business, we generated a curbside where we actually ran out to people’s cars and put the food in with no contact. That way they could still eat our food but not be afraid of anything.”
The restaurant staff wore gloves and masks and used gallons of sanitizer.
“We’ve always used sanitizer but not to the level that we did and are still using,” Brooks says.
Life was pretty much the same at Chicken Annie’s, says Annie Cheney, who has worked at the restaurant for 25 years and says her job title is “survivor.”
“We still haven’t gotten back to the old normal but it’s feeling better, and the phone has started ringing again,” Cheney says.
Mother’s Day 2021 marked a turning point. The restaurants once again filled up and the catering business, which cratered at the height of the pandemic, is returning.
“We survived by doing our own laundry, keeping the furnace, air conditioning and lights off and doing our own yard work,” Cheney says.
But other restaurants took a worse hit. Jim’s Steakhouse in Pittsburg closed after 82 years but may reopen under new ownership.
“I think a lot of these restaurants and places are coming back. We had community members who very much care about these things remaining. And after the tough time, they supported them in ways that they could,” Naccarato says. “But we also had government funding that was able to help those businesses to navigate the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan applications.
“We’ll come out of the pandemic in some ways stronger.”
The future of the task force, Byers says, is yet to be determined. But he believes the focus may pivot away from health issues and turn more to funding issues.
“It’s helpful to coordinate the federal funding that’s coming down the pike,” Byers says. “I think in the near future it is going to be one of our primary jobs for the task force. But if it is still going five years from now, I think it might try to morph into more of a planning organization. The people who are on the task force really represent a lot of the major stakeholders in the town. They have developed that relationship where there is a lot of trust.
“It’s also focused on the smaller communities that really don’t have any resources at all.”
- Inspiring a collective purpose is a leadership behavior that aims to energize others. Do you see it playing out in this story, and if so, where?
- How would you evaluate Crawford County’s success at adapting to the coronavirus pandemic? What metrics do you believe are most important to elevate?
- How would you evaluate your own community’s success in adapting to the pandemic? On what basis do you judge success or failure?
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.