In the small Alberta hamlet of Skiff, Cade Hollingsworth and two of his co-workers are lying on the ground next to a grain elevator, watching the clouds go by.
They’re waiting for a truck to be loaded up at the farmyard just across the coulee to the north. That will take as long as it takes — they’re on farmer time.
Hollingsworth works for Forty Mile Rail, a short line railway that runs between the village of Foremost and Stirling, Alta. When the grain cars finally arrive, the trio will load it up before it gets shipped to the coast.
Just a little more than 25 kilometres up the road is Hollingworth’s hometown, Foremost, a community with a population of just over 500. Hollingsworth graduated with 15 students in his Grade 12 class.
“Everybody’s friends. Everybody knows everybody, which can be good and bad,” he said. “I think the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ actually is very true in the village of Foremost.”
Hollingsworth says he knows he’s one of the lucky ones in the world — he’s kept his job throughout the pandemic.
The fact that things seem unchanged might be why his county is seeing such low vaccination rates compared to the rest of the province, Hollingsworth figures.
“Nothing changed as dramatically as I can imagine it would have in one of the bigger centres, like Calgary or Edmonton,” he said.
As of Friday, only 45 per cent of residents in Forty Mile County over the age of 12 have received their first jab, far below the provincial average of 82 per cent.
“I guess [people in urban centres] probably think of us like country hicks that don’t know what’s going on,” Hollingsworth said. “But from what we see, what is the point, I guess? Our lives didn’t change.”
A split in the community
Health officials say the remoteness of communities like those in Forty Mile County doesn’t insulate them from the spread of COVID-19 and its potentially deadly effects.
As of Friday, the county had an active case rate of 733 per a population of 100,000, higher than the provincial active case rate of 456 per 100,000.
“The delta variant of COVID-19 doesn’t spare anyone,” said Dr. Vivien Suttorp, medical officer of health for Alberta’s south zone.
And the province’s recent implementation of a vaccine passport system has made the issue of vaccination a lot harder to ignore for residents in Forty Mile.
Businesses and venues are allowed to operate without capacity limits and other public health measures if they require proof of vaccination or a negative test result from those who enter.
Up the road from Hollingsworth and his colleagues waiting for the truck to arrive, the community of Foremost is split on the issue.
Many express feelings of distrust when it comes to government and health officials. Others say they feel mass media has sensationalized the pandemic. Meanwhile, some say their neighbours have bought into conspiracy theories they’ve read on social media.
Given that only 38.4 per cent of residents here over the age of 12 are doubly vaccinated, the reality is that businesses implementing the program could stand to lose more than half their customers if the passport doesn’t convince them to get the jab.
“To me, it’s unfair,” said Joanne Schmidt, owner of the Main Street Cafe. “I don’t think I should have the right to say, ‘You have to be vaccinated to come into my business.'”
Schmidt isn’t adopting Alberta’s restrictions exemption program at her cafe at this time, instead opting to go take-out only. Part of that, she says, is because some of her staff haven’t been vaccinated.
Crystal Jahn, a waitress there, says she doesn’t trust how quickly the vaccines were developed and is distrustful of both the provincial and federal governments.
“I like to say that [Premier Jason] Kenney is a liberal dressed as a conservative,” Jahn says. “He’s a hypocrite, you know, saying he’s going to do one thing and then veer off completely to the left.”
Kenney’s handling of the fourth wave of the pandemic in Alberta has been under fire in recent weeks, leading political scientists to speculate it may have hurt the federal Conservatives on election night.
Schmidt says she’s unsure how her decision might affect her business moving forward. Work crews who used to come in for supper and beers won’t be able to do so now that Main Street has gone to takeout only.
“But I don’t think most of them have their vaccine, either, so they couldn’t come in anyway,” she said.
Mayor says village split between ‘vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers’
A common refrain among residents is that to live in Foremost is to be part of one big family. If there’s ever a crisis or a tragedy in the community, residents pull together to lend a hand.
But since the pandemic hit, many say there’s been a noticeable split in the population between the “vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers.”
“You know, you’ve got the groups that think [COVID-19] is a dark web conspiracy theory,” said Foremost Mayor Lorne Buis.
“Well, you’re going to read what you’re going to read on the internet. If you’re not fluent enough to check the facts out that you’re reading further … that’s on you.”
Part of the issue, Buis says, is the rumour mill that can sometimes bubble up in small towns.
“In my mind, it’s misinformation. They read something, and that’s the honest-to-God truth. They haven’t looked it up to make sure it’s true,” he said.
“One guy says something, I tell two friends and they tell two friends and they tell two friends.… Well, by the time it gets to the second set of friends, it’s nowhere close to the original story, right?”
No islands when it comes to COVID, AHS says
Forty Mile County says it has been supportive of Alberta Health Services in setting up vaccination clinics and in disseminating information on social media and online about the benefits of vaccination.
Stewart Payne, the county’s director of emergency services, says it’s unclear why the county ranks close to the bottom of vaccination uptake provincially.
“There’s been no surveys. There’s been no studies,” he said.
Suttorp, the medical officer of health, says though the vaccination rates for Forty Mile County are very low, it’s key to look at the total number of unvaccinated people in southern Alberta.
People travel, shop and visit the doctor in other communities, Suttorp says, so it’s important to recognize that very few human beings are islands unto themselves.
Suttorp says when it comes to small communities in southern Alberta, immunization rates for COVID-19 mirror the uptake for childhood vaccines.
“It is the communities with low immunization rates where we have vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks — you had measles, mumps, whooping cough,” she said.
“The communities where we have more children immunized, in the schools where we have children fully immunized, we don’t see the disease transmission in those communities.
“So the difference, or the heterogeneity between communities, is significant in southern Alberta.”
Pushing on for Bobby
For some business owners trying to follow the COVID-19 rules and keep their heads above water, the frequent implementations and pullbacks of restrictions in the province are frustrating.
Just under a half an hour drive north of Foremost is the town of Bow Island, Alta. With nearly 2,000 residents, it’s the largest community in Forty Mile County.
At Bobby’s Bar and Restaurant, owner Charlene Rosse says she’s tried to do everything she can to keep her community safe, including requiring masks, hand sanitizing and checking vaccine passports at the door.
The bar is usually like the sitcom Cheers, she says, even though the arguments taking place around Forty Mile County about COVID-19 and vaccines have begun to flare up in her bar, too. She’s had to “kibosh the COVID talk” in recent months when it gets heated.
Tonight, the regulars have started to file in. Rosse knows them by name and is run off her feet by drink orders, cracking open cans of Bud Light and Kokanee.
Rosse took over running the place in June after the bar’s longtime owner, Robert “Bobby” Prest, passed away from lung cancer.
“He had a heart of gold. Most people loved him,” Rosse said.
Rosse worked with Prest for 25 years, and she says he became like a stepfather to her. The bar meant everything to Prest, Rosse says, so it’s important to her to keep it alive.
Right above the bar at Bobby’s, just steps away from a decoration that reads “it’s best to let Bob win at crib,” is a photo of the eponymous owner. Right before his death, Prest recorded a video expressing his concerns that COVID was killing small business.
“Bob built this right from the ground up, this place. I don’t want to let it go down,” Rosse said. “That kinda wants me to fight to keep it going even harder, for him.”
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