Rural Reporting Project

Just like other parts of California, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are reverberating throughout rural communities. But the type and scale of impact is different, and so are the ways people are coping.

This summer, CapRadio and North State Public Radio are teaming up to explore the effects of COVID-19 in Plumas and Sierra counties, two rural areas along California’s Sierra Nevada. We’re collaborating with community partners to listen, learn and report the unique challenges rural places are facing, and their creative solutions.

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Thanks to our community partners:

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

The day Greenville Junior/Senior High School switched to distance learning, no students were in the classroom. They’d been off for three snow days, which meant the school didn’t have time to prepare and most students had left their school-issued tablets behind. 

A challenge greater than finding and delivering those devices to students? Getting them online. 

Photo courtesy of TyAnna Farmer

Downtown Downieville in Sierra County is usually packed with tourists in the middle of the summer. But the town is quiet this July, and so are the teenagers. High schoolers experienced prom and graduation cancelations in the first couple months of shelter-in-place and now they’re having to spend the summer inside. 

Mia Martinelli is 14 years old and figured she would be spending the summer after her freshman year of high school hanging with friends and shopping in Reno. But the pandemic has changed a lot of her plans.

Nina Sparling

Rugged Roots Farm sits just off Route 70 in Plumas County a few minutes past downtown Quincy. The first thing you see when you drive up is an old, buzzing refrigerator. 

“We wanted it right up at the front so when people drive up it’s the first thing they see,” said Leslie Pace, co-director of the farm. 

She started last year. The farm is a program of the Lost Sierra Food Project, a nonprofit she started with Jessie Mazar to address food justice and food security in Plumas County. 

Photo courtesy the Quincy Feather Bed Inn

Imagine wave after wave of complete strangers pulling up next to your town’s pristine river to unload their camping gear and then settle right in. Even when no camping is allowed. Even when no facilities — not even pit toilets — are available.

When favorite wild places get trampled, becoming de facto garbage dumps and latrines, entire communities sour on even the idea of welcoming visitors.

Which is exactly what happened in parts of Plumas County in late May. Campgrounds weren’t even open, but that didn’t stop people from coming anyway. People from distant cities simply done with being locked down at home due to the coronavirus. People determined to be somewhere else, almost anywhere else, so long as it was outdoors. No matter what anyone else said. 

Nina Sparling

TyAnna Farmer had her outfit ready for the High Sierra Music Festival this year. Sparkles, glitter, glow sticks, and fishnets. “All the festival works,” she said. 

Farmer will be a senior next year at Plumas Charter School in Quincy. She looks forward to the High Sierra Music Festival every year. 

“High Sierra doesn't even feel like I'm in Quincy, it feels like I'm in a whole other place,” Farmer said. 

But High Sierra was one of dozens of summer events cancelled this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's kept many mountain towns in Northern California normally bustling with tourists quieter than usual this year, especially over the holiday weekend. 

Plumas National Forest / Public domain

Rural Plumas County has seen very few COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. As of Tuesday, only six cases had been confirmed there. 

NSPR’s Andre Byik recently spoke with Lori Beatley, public information officer in Plumas County, to ask what the low case numbers may mean, and what officials hope to learn about the virus as mass testing is conducted in the county. 

Photo courtesy of Plumas County Public Health

When you drive into Sierra County, a bright yellow sign blares in all caps, “VISITORS, KINDLY DISTANCE FROM OUR COMMUNITIES." 

A one-lane bridge crosses the North Yuba River in the town of Downieville, which is in the middle of the Tahoe National Forest. And about 110 miles northeast of Sacramento and about 90 miles west of Reno, it’s lined with old brick and wood frame buildings.

In the middle of town, Carl Butz is trying to figure out how to keep a mask on, carry on a conversation, and smoke a cigarette. A couple of locals are giving him a hard time.

Plumas National Forest / Public domain

On May 13, Plumas County received clearance from the state to move further into Stage Two of reopening the local economy. 

The rural county has confirmed only four total cases of COVID-19 and has reported zero deaths connected with the virus.

NSPR’s Marc Albert spoke with Lori Beatley, health education coordinator for Plumas County’s Public Health Agency, about how the county has been responding to the pandemic. Highlights from their conversation are below.

Mentioned in the interview are mental health resources from Plumas County Behavioral Health, as well as the county's information line: 530-283-6400. 

Listen to the full interview at the top of the page.