Verden, Okla., population 508, narrowly avoided having to cancel a town council meeting for lack of a quorum earlier this month. Three of five council members had been sick or in quarantine, and Oklahoma ended the state of emergency that allowed for remote meetings, said Tessa Upton, the town clerk.
Ms. Upton, who is one of two people who works in the main office at town hall, said she has asked residents to drop their water bill payments through a slot in the door largely to protect the town’s utility billing clerk. If residents must come in, she said, they’ve been asked to wear masks — a request often ignored by the residents of the town in Grady County, where just 36 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
“We’re trying to stay safe in here,” she said. “If we go down, we’re not going to have water.”
The stresses are the effects of short-term pandemic crises piled on top of demographic trends that have played out over decades as work has disappeared in industries like agriculture and manufacturing, and young people leave for better opportunities elsewhere.
“Longer term, we’ve seen really strong economic challenges in rural America as the urban-rural divide has expanded,” said Brooks Rainwater, director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. The pandemic, he said, has compounded those issues by exacerbating existing labor shortages, making it tougher for small municipal agencies to quickly staff up if people are sick or decide to leave.
“Rural governments are small by design,” he said.
Marvell was never a big city, but longtime residents say it used to be a more lively community. In the middle of the last century, a commuter railway stopped in downtown, where there were, at one point, three hotels. Then the commuter trains became cargo rail, and by the late 1970s, that was gone, too.
Now, the town’s two grocery stores and three clothing stores are gone. Nearly all of the remaining businesses — including a handful of chain convenience stores and gas stations — line the highway that ushers travelers toward Helena, the county seat and home to the King Biscuit Blues Festival. The gathering brings in hundreds of thousands of music lovers hoping to experience Delta blues in the area’s biggest annual event.
(Marvell’s own hope for luring tourists is the rustic, wood-sided boyhood home of Levon Helm, the former drummer and singer for the rock group the Band. The home opened to visitors in 2019 after it was moved from a smaller outpost known as Turkey Scratch into Marvell, where Mr. Helm attended school.)