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Christmas traditions axed as pandemic sweeps rural Kansas

The cancellation of the beloved Christmas Drawing in Norcatur, Kansas, has shone a spotlight on a global coronavirus pandemic that has reached deep into rural America

BELLE PLAINE, Kan. -- It's barely a town anymore, battered by time on the windswept prairie of northwest Kansas. COVID-19 still managed for find Norcatur.

Not much remains of the rural hamlet, save for a service station, a grain elevator, a little museum, and a weekend hangout where the locals play pool, eat pizza and drink beer. The roof has collapsed on the crumbling building that once housed its bank and general store. Schools closed decades ago and the former high school building is used for city offices.

“Due to individuals who have COVID and refuse to stay home and quarantine it has been determined it is not safe for the citizens of Norcatur and the area to proceed,” read the notice tucked in the town’s newsletter and posted on its Facebook page. It blamed “negligent attitudes of lack of concern for others” for the cancellation.

In a decades-old tradition that evokes Norman Rockwell nostalgia, the whole town typically gathers for a potluck dinner at Christmastime. Its namesake drawing features a plethora of donated meats, crafts and other goodies so every family can go home with prizes. The local 4-H Club puts on its bake sale. Santa Claus comes riding the firetruck.

Decatur County has fewer than 3,000 people scattered across farms and small towns like Norcatur. As of Monday, the county had 194 coronavirus cases and one death, although medical providers say there are at least four more deaths of local residents that have yet to be added to the official toll.

Carolyn Plotts, a 73-year-old Norcatur resident who never had symptoms and only found out she was positive for COVID-19 when tested for a medical procedure in October, said two of her former high school classmates who live in the county died because of the virus. Her husband also tested positive.

“It's been very real to me,” she said.

Plotts wondered whether the cancellation notice was maybe “talking about me.” During her quarantine she would only leave her house — with her doctor's permission and wearing a mask, she said pointedly — to care for a housebound friend who still believes the pandemic is a hoax.

Carl Lyon, the Norcatur mayor who takes on the annual Santa role, said while most residents are “pretty good” about social distancing and wearing a mask, some have gotten the virus.

“I know a couple of people had it and they were still kind of running around and whatnot,” Lyon said. “Didn't seem to bother them that they infected everybody else.”

Decatur County Sheriff Ken Badsky estimated that 5% of county residents who should quarantine violate the restrictions and go out. His office has called some and “insisted they do what they are supposed to do,” but has taken no legal action.

“I have so much other stuff to do. I don’t have time to follow people around,” Badsky said. “We have 900 square miles, we have three full-time officers and a part-time to take care of that and we are busy with everything else.”

Such sentiments anger medical providers as coronavirus cases surge and it gets more difficult to find beds for their sickest patients as hospitals across the state fill up.

“We need some backing to stop this virus and we are looking to people that need to do their job to do it, and so otherwise this thing is going to run rampant and it is going to put more pressure on our hospital,” Kris Mathews, the administrator of Decatur Health, a small critical access hospital in Oberlin, just 19 miles west of Norcatur.

Stan Miller, the announcer for the Christmas Drawing for more than 25 years, has mixed emotions about the decision to forgo it this year. The 63-year-old Norcatur resident said he understands that there are elderly people who you don't want to get the virus. But it's also disappointing.

“I like to see all the joy, especially the little kids,” Miller said. “We have Santa Claus after the drawing is over and to see them sit on Santa's lap and tell them what they want for Christmas, you know, always puts a smile on my face."

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