Chesapeake Bay's Tangier Island records zero coronavirus cases, but concerns mount

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There is still a spot in America unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic, but people living there say they’re afraid of what could happen if the virus comes to their shores.

Inez Pruitt has watched COVID-19 spread throughout the world from the relative safety of Tangier Island, a small fishing community in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

But, the virus has come as close it can get without crossing the water, infecting people on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland.

“I feel like if we got COVID, it would be devastating,” said Pruitt, a physician assistant operating the island’s health clinic. “In my head, it has a very high potential of happening. I just hope to God it doesn’t.”

Workboats at crab shacks lining the waterway in the harbor of Tangier Island, Va., in 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Workboats at crab shacks lining the waterway in the harbor of Tangier Island, Va., in 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

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Reachable only by plane or boat, the dwindling community of fewer than 500 people has reported zero cases of the coronavirus. And, though its one school and two churches have shuttered, life has continued at a level of normalcy that much of the nation lost weeks ago.

Far fewer people on Tangier have been wearing masks than in much of the U.S. Its watermen, who anchor the economy and make up much of the workforce, still pull up crab pots and sell their bushels to buyers on the mainland.

Only one restaurant is open this time of year, so only one had to close its dining room.

The island still celebrated Palm Sunday and Easter, albeit in a long procession of golf carts and other vehicles that circled the island.

“It’s sort of like we’ve been in a safe haven,” Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge said. “We feel more protected.”

Tangier has come to be viewed by some in America’s stifled East Coast cities as the perfect escape.

“I’ve had folks call me up from all over and say, ‘Would it be OK if I flew in just to walk on the beach?’” the mayor said.

Tangier Island Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge in a 2017 photo. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Tangier Island Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge in a 2017 photo. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

The mayor said he has discouraged such visits, but small planes have landed in recent weeks. The island also told a New York-based production company that was filming a possible television show about Tangier to stay away until the pandemic subsided.

But, the community’s protective isolation could also be its undoing if the coronavirus were to come ashore. Disease could spread fast in the close-knit community, which hasn’t had a full-time doctor in half a century.

These days, a doctor usually flies to the island every other week. People getting really sick must be taken to a hospital on the mainland. About 40 percent of Tangier’s inhabitants have been over 60 years old and therefore more vulnerable to the virus.

Over the winter, a flu spread quickly and infected more than 50 people, Pruitt said, adding that one person almost died and another had a heart attack.

“We’re incubated and isolated enough to spread just like we did the flu,” she added.

Pruitt said most people on the island have practiced social distancing and stopped visiting friends. But, Tangier has remained very much connected to the rest of the world.

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A mail boat has come six days a week. Another boat often would take people each afternoon to the mainland. A third boat picked up crabs. Also, some people on the island have taken their own boats to sell crabs or buy groceries, medicine or other supplies on the mainland.

Plus, dozens of the island’s inhabitants would leave for weeks at a time to work on tugboats along the East Coast.

Boats on a Tangier Island creek in 2013.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Boats on a Tangier Island creek in 2013.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

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The relative feeling of safety on Tangier was a strange role reversal for a community that frequently drew apocalyptic descriptions.

The island was disappearing into the nation’s largest estuary, scientists have said, predicting that people living there may have to abandon Tangier in 25 to 50 years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.