In a game commonly played around the Gagner family dinner table, each of Kyle and Melissa Gagner's four children take turns making a wish. On one recent evening, each child, ages 5 to 11, answered the prompt with a common refrain: They wished coronavirus was over.
"Kids are like all of us -- they're made to be in community," said Kyle Gagner, a Nodak Insurance agent in Cavalier, N.D. "We're made to be with people and have human interaction. They miss it just as much as we do."
Gagner says his family has been more cautious than many of their neighbors during the pandemic, due to their son Levi's rare muscle condition that impedes his ability to breathe. Following directions from doctors during Levi's semi-annual trip to the Mayo Clinic, Gagner said his family wears masks and have only recently slowly started socializing again. He said he didn't set foot in a grocery store from March until this month. The family hasn't had a guest in the home since before the shutdown.
But his family is the exception, not the rule, Gagner said. Though summer events have been canceled and more masks can be sighted around town, the effects of the virus haven't really been felt yet in Pembina County, and in Cavalier, for the most part, everything is business as usual.
"You hope that we're not being complacent," he said. "Everybody feels the same way: I hope we're doing this right, but yet, life really hasn't changed a whole lot. That's just my perspective .... But the mood's just been weird. Weird, weird, weird."
According to the North Dakota Department of Health website, Pembina County has had a total of 28 confirmed cases of coronavirus, nine of which are considered active. Last week, the Herald reported that Pembina County had seen a nearly 58% increase in cases from July 1 through July 23.
Katie Foster, who owns the Blue Fox Coffeehouse in downtown Cavalier, said she knows three people who have had COVID-19, but none of them have been in Cavalier. She suspects many people could say the same thing. As many other areas of the United States have been gripped by fear as the virus tears through their communities, Cavalier has reached its own kind of simmering point: one where the town's residents have prepared and held their breath, yet five months into the pandemic, little has happened.
"I think the biggest problem with a small town is everyone wants to know what's going on," Foster said. "And when nobody knows what to do, there's a lot of miscommunication and a lot of anxiety about what to actually do."
Foster estimates the town is split roughly in half.
"There's the drastic 25% who say this is the end of the world, there's the other drastic 25% who think it's all a government conspiracy, and then everyone in the middle who's just trying to do their part, and be mindful of other people," she said. "The pendulum swings both ways."
And The Blue Fox, as one of Cavalier's gathering places, gets all kinds through its doors.
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Since reopening the coffeehouse after the shutdown, Foster said new Plexiglass shields have been put up as a barrier between baristas and customers. Decorations and other frivolous items have been put away, the coffeehouse's couches and piano are closed, and customers who choose to dine in must be seated six feet apart and are not allowed to be seated in large groups.
Foster said the majority of her customers have been understanding of the situation, but she estimates that about 10% don't, as she put it, want to play by the rules. Among the worst offenders are customers she described as "the little old ladies."
"You know, they all lived through World War II, and they've lived through all of these things happening, and now this is, you know, the common flu, as they look at it -- it's no big deal," she said. "But like I said, it's just not having enough information given out. It's all hearsay, and whispers, and stuff like that. We don't have any information - how can anyone make a decision?"
That's been one of the trickiest parts of the pandemic, Foster said: sifting through all the misinformation, conflicting information, changing information, and often, a lack of information.
That's something with which Cavalier Mayor Lacey Hinkle would agree. When asked what challenges the town faced pre-pandemic, Hinkle answered without missing a beat: miscommunication, misinformation, coffee shop talk and idle small-town gossip. None of those things are unique to Cavalier, but Hinkle said the town had felt its effects in recent months, when two referendums to help fund building improvements for local schools were voted down months apart, which she believes is due to the spread of false information throughout the community.
Those problems have only been exacerbated during the pandemic. No one who spoke with the Herald was familiar with any structured groups or communities that had contributed to the spread of misinformation. Rather, in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone, information seems to flow freely across neighbors' personal social media pages.
And multiple sources agreed that it can be difficult to know who to trust, or what to believe.
"It has affected our community," Hinkle said. "Once you get that negativity and those rumors and gossip out there, it's hard to get past that."
Gagner said his family has taken their cues from Levi's doctors at the Mayo Clinic and Sanford Health. He said he tries to get the most up-to-date information from the CDC and NDDOH, but he, too, has struggled to keep up as experts' understanding of the virus evolves, and guidelines are updated, changed or scrapped altogether. As pandemic fatigue continues to set in in Cavalier, he said he can empathize with neighbors who have begun to wonder how much validity there really is to experts' latest claims.
Hinkle said she attempted to get out in front of the spread of misinformation early in the pandemic by personally delivering informational fliers to each business in town about coronavirus and appropriate safety precautions, and continues to issue regular updates to the public. By and large, she said she believes the people of Cavalier have responded responsibly and compassionately to the pandemic.
Still, as neighboring rural counties, such as Walsh County, in recent weeks have seen their first real spike of the pandemic, the distant possibility of an outbreak in Pembina County looms.
"It's sort of that cloak and dagger - that 'they're lurking among us' feeling," Foster said. "I understand people have a need for privacy. But when they say Pembina County, well, Pembina County has a lot of towns in it. Like is it in Cavalier? Is it Pembina? Is it Hensel? We don't actually know where the sick people are."
In the meantime, while Gagner said he's missing music festivals and town events, he said his focus is on enjoying summer nights and bike rides with his kids. There are still a few more weeks before the family returns to regular home-school routine. Though the Gagners are usually a busy family, Gagner said that, since the pandemic arrived in North Dakota four months ago, he's come to look forward to days without any real schedule.
"I think I like the pace better," he said. "It's easy to say now, and if everything does go firing back on all cylinders maybe that'll change, but I know I sure like the pace we're at."