On A Tiny Chesapeake Bay Island, Fear That COVID-19 Could Deal It A Final Blow
Photography by Craig Hudson
TANGIER ISLAND, Virginia ― In the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, about 70 miles north of Virginia Beach, lies the tiny island of Tangier ― a place whose residents are as familiar with isolated living as they are with an uncertain future.
This 700-acre spit of marshland, accessible only by boat or small plane, is rapidly vanishing due to a combination of a climate change-driven rise in sea levels, erosion and a phenomenon known as post-glacial rebound that’s slowly causing the land to sink. Its economy is dependent on the bay’s crab and oyster fisheries and the scores of visitors that flock to the island each spring and summer, a fragile factor even in good years. And 2020 is not a good year.
The coronavirus pandemic has spared the island so far, even as it rages across Virginia and much of the rest of the country. Many of the island’s roughly 440 permanent residents hope to keep it that way, pleading with would-be visitors to stay out, even as the economic impact of a year with no tourists could be devastating.
“I don’t agree with people coming from out of town for no good reason,” said Inez Pruitt, a physician assistant at the Tangier Island Health Foundation, the island’s only clinic. “If it’s not essential travel, they need to stay home until this passes.”
Pruitt and other local leaders are urging locals to practice social distancing, wash their hands frequently and avoid travel off the island. They’ve also taken to social media to discourage outsiders from visiting ― though no official policy or order bars them and the Federal Aviation Administration has kept the local airport open.
Companies that run cruises to the island have delayed their seasons. And to deter tourists, Tangier’s hotels and bed and breakfasts remain shuttered.
“So far, we’ve been getting sort of a refuge from the virus,” said James “Ooker” Eskridge, the island’s mayor and a third-generation commercial fisherman. “But if it did get a foothold here, then we would worry about it spreading pretty quick because of the close-knit community.”
Tangier has no full-time doctor, just the small clinic that is unequipped to deal with even a single COVID-19 patient. It has a large elderly population, a group particularly vulnerable to the deadly disease (at least 40% of the residents are over 60 years old). And while the clinic did secure COVID-19 tests, they are not the rapid-result type and must be sent to a lab for processing; the island’s remoteness means it likely takes two weeks to get the findings.
Virginia has recorded more than 27,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 955 deaths. And while Tangier has no confirmed cases, Accomack County, which includes the island, is among the hardest-hit in the state per capita, with more than 600 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nine fatalities.
In some ways, Tangier’s seclusion makes it uniquely prepared for this moment. But the pandemic adds a new element to the island’s ongoing crisis. And some fear an outbreak of COVID-19 would ultimately be the demise of this historic community.
Preparing For A Lost Season
May is typically when the tourist season ramps up on Tangier. Spanky’s Place, a 1950’s style ice-cream parlor, and other seasonal eateries and gift shops would be back open. The local airport would be buzzing with small plane traffic, and cruise boats would, on a good day, be dropping off hundreds of visitors.
Irene Thomas owns Brigadune Beachside Getaway, one of the island’s year-round hotels, nestled just down the road from the sprawling public beach on the island’s south end. She said the calls to cancel reservations started in March and haven’t let up.
“By now, in May, [business] would be picking up,” she said. “We would probably have anywhere from, say, three to eight people staying over the course of the weekdays, and I believe we would already be getting full on weekends.”
Thomas’ business has been shuttered since Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed an executive order in late March to close all non-essential businesses in the state. The order, which lifted late Thursday on a modified basis, exempted hotels, but Thomas said there was no way for her to comply with the prohibition on gatherings of 10 or more people. A separate statewide stay-at-home order is set to expire on June 10.
Many locals are hopeful the summer season won’t be entirely lost, that maybe come July things will look better. Others are less optimistic.
Lorraine Marshall, owner of Lorraine’s Seafood Restaurant the island’s sole year-round restaurant, has managed to weather the crisis thanks to a steady stream of takeout and delivery orders from locals. She fears other seasonal eateries won’t be able to make ends meet.
“I don’t think people are going to be coming for the rest of the summer,” she said. That’s our best time of the year, in the summer. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. The other restaurants would be open too, but if there’s no tourists they might not, because that’s what they depend on.”
Carol Pruitt-Moore, a seventh-generation resident and one of Tangier’s unofficial historians, shares that worry.
“Even if the country opens up in July, who’s going to have the money to come to Tangier?” she asked. “That’s your ferry. That’s your overnight stay. That’s your meals. It’s not going to happen.”
“Tangier’s going to suffer this summer,” she said.
One bright spot is that the spring crabbing season has been exceptional in the Chesapeake, with Tangier’s watermen able to prop up the island’s struggling economy. In late March, female blue crabs were fetching $25 per bushel. Now they are selling for between $65 and $85 per bushel, way above the average price of $50, said Lonnie Moore, Carol’s husband and a lifelong waterman. The male crabs are bringing in as much as $150 a bushel.
Tangier’s watermen sell their catches to mainland restaurants and independent suppliers of fish markets up and down the East Coast. Despite the pandemic, crabs have been in high demand.
“Let’s say there was no market for the crabs this year… man, it would be critical over here ― devastating,” said Eskridge, who also makes his living as a commercial crabber.
Having the fishery as a safety net right now “makes quite a difference,” he said.
‘We’re One Big Family Here’
If there’s a connection deeper than Tangier’s people to the land and surrounding waters, it’s to one another. The first documented white settlers arrived on the island from Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1778, although native peoples had been using it as hunting grounds for centuries before that.
Looking at the gravestones in churchyards, the surnames Parks, Pruitt, Crockett and Thomas are everywhere, as are their descendants who reside on the island today.
The sense of community is apparent wherever you go, even amid a pandemic. In town, people greet one another with friendly waves, even if they just passed each other a few minutes earlier. The island has an active Facebook page, where residents exchange recipes, offer to lend a helping hand and report strange sightings (including multiple accounts of a masked photographer walking about town last week). With church services shut down, the New Testament Congregation has taken to airing sermons on social media.
In many ways, daily life looks much as it does in the sleepy offseason. Fishermen take to the water hoping for a successful day’s catch and teenagers cruise the island together on golf carts, ATVs, scooters and bicycles. Few people wear masks. Virtually everyone is on a first-name basis.
When one islander was asked last week where another might be, he sped off, only to return a few minutes later to say that the person was on their way. There’s little need for cell phones; word of mouth moves quickly here.
“You’ve got ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ‘The Waltons,’ and ‘Rosanne’ rolled up in one sitcom,” said Pruitt-Moore.
Dependent on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay for survival, this sense of community has long been a hallmark of Tangier’s people. But that isolated way of life allows for disease to quickly spread, as influenza did earlier this year. At least 50 islanders got the seasonal flu, including seven from a single family and a man who spent a week in intensive care, said Pruitt, the local physician. She fears COVID-19 would sweep through the community in much the same way.
“We’re one big family here,” she said.
While no one on Tangier has reported COVID-19 symptoms and residents have increasingly embraced social distancing, plenty of avenues exist for the virus to come ashore. Despite the island’s requests, residents say a number of people have made day trips in recent weeks, primarily by plane, to walk the beach. A mail boat makes the trip six days a week. The island has a small grocery store, but many locals continue to travel to and from mainland towns to buy supplies and sell crabs. And about a dozen residents work on tugboats in several East Coast port cities, usually for two weeks at a time.
As the phased reopening of certain businesses across much of Virginia begins, it may only be a matter of time before COVID-19 arrives on Tangier.
A HuffPost freelance photographer traveled to Tangier last week via the island’s mailboat after receiving special permission to do so from the mayor. Nevertheless, Pruitt cautioned all non-residents against traveling to the island for the time being.
“You don’t want anybody coming to your house if you don’t know who they are and could possibly have COVID,” she said. “We don’t want to let our guard down until it’s completely gone.”
Life On A Rapidly Vanishing Island
The pandemic is just the latest existential threat for Tangier. With its highest point just four feet above sea level, Tangier is at the mercy of a rapidly warming planet ― although many residents question whether human greenhouse gas emissions are driving that.
More than two-thirds of the island’s landmass has disappeared since 1850, according to a 2015 study by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scientists. An average of 8 acres vanish each year, and residents agree Tangier could be one large storm away from being wiped off the map.
The study concluded that rising seas and erosion could sink most of the remaining land in as little as 25 years, leaving residents with no choice but to flee. “If no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA,” according to the study.
The island received national headlines in June of 2017 when President Donald Trump phoned Eskridge and ― and with no apparent backup for the claim ― reportedly told the mayor he need not worry about sea-level rise, and that the island would be there for hundreds more years. Islanders are hopeful that construction of an approved sea wall to mitigate erosion will get underway this summer.
Like the island itself, Tangier’s population is dwindling, down from a peak of 1,200 in the 1930s to about 425 today. An outbreak of COVID-19 could be a fatal blow.
“Folks probably would be discouraged from coming back,” Eskridge said. We definitely don’t need that on top of our concerns we already have.”
As mayor, Eskridge is fielding calls from both islanders who make their living off summer tourism and want to welcome back visitors and those who worry doing so is not worth the risk.
“You want to protect the elderly on the island, but at the same time you have folks that depend on tourism and you don’t want them to go under,” Eskridge said. “I guess it’s a balancing act.”
For Pruitt-Moore, a few months of hardship are worth it if it means saving this already imperiled island community from the potential ravages of COVID-19.
“I understand people wanting to get to work,” she said. “But I also understand if corona hits Tangier, it would be such devastation that Tangier would not recover.”
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