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Editor’s note: Over the holidays, Carolina Public Press is sharing some of our top reads. This story was originally published on June 12, 2020.
WADESBORO — When Anson County’s only Walmart announced that it was closing — and the coronavirus pandemic began to affect the state at the same time — the already struggling community faced a rapidly worsening situation.
Walmart announced March 4 that it planned to close the Wadesboro store April 3. But the store sold all of its inventory and closed early on March 29. The pharmacy closed as expected on April 3.
North Carolina announced its first positive test for the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, on March 3, the day before Walmart’s announcement.
Just under 25,000 people live in Anson County, located on the South Carolina line about 50 miles east of Charlotte. The largest town and county seat, Wadesboro, has about 5,800 residents, according to recent census estimates.
Walmart was both a major employer and primary source of food and other supplies for Anson County. While other stores exist, the loss is affecting both customers and former workers at a difficult time.
Food, Medicaid requests increase
According to The Anson Record, the store listed a variety of reasons for closing, including financial factors. The closure affected 205 employees.
Needs within the community have since increased, according to Lula Jackson, director of Anson County Department of Social Services. Jackson said her office does not have data on which factors — Walmart’s closure or the coronavirus — contributed most to the numbers.
“Overall, the request for services increased due to the Walmart closing, COVID-19, delay in unemployment benefits and layoffs,” Jackson told Carolina Public Press in an email.
“A lot of the customers (who) were served (at) the end of March and April were new to the agency/programs. People are seeking all available resources to provide for their families, which is what they should do.”
In February, Anson DSS had 104 enrolled in Food and Nutrition Services. In March, enrollment had risen to 129. The numbers jumped to 360 in April. Family and Children’s Medicaid enrollment also increased, going from 47 in February and 44 in March to 71 in April.
“The number of requests for utility assistance increased, as well,” Jackson said. “But because utility companies were not disconnecting services, we did not offer assistance.”
Margot Barnes, director of Anson Crisis Ministry, said the organization picked up food from Walmart five to six days per week. Until the last several months, the ministry received about 10,000 pounds or more of donated food per month from the store, she said.
Most of the ministry’s clients are at high risk from the coronavirus, with about 60%-75% elderly, on Social Security or disability, or both.
Volunteers have also been affected.
“I have volunteers whose children have quarantined them,” Barnes said. “They said, ‘I’ll go get the groceries. You stay right here.’”
Some families lost both incomes at once.
“I have a family of five where both parents were working at two different McDonald’s, and now neither one of them is working,” Barnes said. “There are many examples of that.”
Barnes felt that Walmart’s closure caused more of an increase in requests than the coronavirus has, though the pandemic has contributed.
Barnes said the ministry is “well supplied” from Second Harvest Food Bank and gets food from IGA and Food Lion. But often, the ministry is low on produce, deli, bakery and hygiene items. Sometimes it assists with medications, food and household items.
“There are a number of people who have difficulty getting here from Morven to come to us for the food pantry,” Barnes said, referring to the small Anson County town southeast of Wadesboro.
“The idea of going 20, 25 miles in either direction to go shopping is just — I don’t know how they’re going to do it. … The lack of Walmart is an inconvenience for some people. It’s more than that. Personally, I can’t compare losing Walmart to the pandemic.”
Lisa Holt, director of Feed My Lambs, another ministry in Wadesboro, said March saw the greatest number of clients that her ministry had seen in its 22 years. Normally, it serves a little over 500 families, but in March, it served 630.
“We got in toilet paper today,” Holt said June 5. “One woman was so excited to see toilet paper.”
Last year, Feed My Lambs gave away 1.4 million pounds of food. This year, it will likely give away at least 1.6 million pounds.
The June 5 delivery included milk, eggs, meat and paper products. Sometimes the ministry runs low on pasta and condiments. Second Harvest will soon begin sending a refrigerated tractor-trailer with more food, and Pilgrim’s Pride to the west in Marshville in Union County recently donated 275 40-pound boxes of chicken.
Tracking whether the increase has been more from COVID-19 or the store closure has been hard since the ministry had to shift from inside appointments to less formal outside sign-ups during the pandemic.
Without Walmart, getting groceries is harder for some.
“Especially in the Burnsville (community in Anson County) and Morven area, where people can’t walk to the grocery store,” Holt said.
“We tend to see two or three families come together, and they have to pay somebody who charges $10 each way. … The Food Lion here is sometimes really low on stuff. Some people are able to go out of town and some aren’t.”
While not everyone charges families for rides, the $20 fee she sees many pay can be difficult for already struggling families.
Broader economic effects
David Edwards, Wadesboro town manager, said the Town Council anticipates the town will lose a significant amount of money, but it’s too early to tell how much.
“Obviously, there’s a pretty significant loss of jobs, so we know that’s going to have an impact,” Edwards said.
“But for directly for job operations, we still haven’t found out yet what the impacts are going to be in terms of our sales tax because that data is on about a 10- to 12-week lag. They were operating through the end of March, and so we won’t know until we get April and May’s information about what that’s going to do to affect our revenue.”
Edwards said the town will compare the sales tax data with historical numbers to get an idea of the decrease but added that North Carolina does not detail how much specific stores generate in sales taxes. It will make it tricky for the local government to gauge what to anticipate.
“We can’t even estimate what we’re going to lose,” Edwards said.
For budget planning purposes, the town is projecting a 25% decrease in sales tax revenue — about $250,000. Sales tax revenue comprises roughly 25%-30% of the general fund, according to Edwards.
“We’re budgeting for that just in case but hopeful folks are still spending their money in town, just at other retailers,” Edwards said.
With the anticipated loss, the town has had to make hard decisions. The police department, fire department, streets, sanitation and other areas will likely be unable to make capital purchases next budget year. These could include new firetrucks, police cars, waterlines or other large purchases.
“We are anticipating we are just going to be able to provide the services we’re currently providing,” Edwards said. “If something breaks, we will have to try to fix it instead of replacing it.”
Unfortunately, large or ongoing repairs can add up to be more expensive than replacements, he added.
A small-business loan program Edwards hoped to create to boost uptown Wadesboro business was also postponed.
It’s possible that ad valorem tax revenue will also decline if residents struggle to pay, but it’s too early to predict.
In a county of about 25,000 people, there are few retailers to choose from. Local pharmacies and the hardware stores have been busy, Edwards said.
“There’s some evidence, even if it’s anecdotal, that money is being spread around in the community,” Edwards said.
But questions remain.
“Several local leaders in town were going to be reaching out to Roses to ask them to carry school uniforms,” Edwards said, adding that the only other options were to travel outside the county or purchase them online.
Pandemic or not, concerns also persist about residents being able to find affordable medications.
“It’s not necessarily that there are no other pharmacies in town, but Walmart offered a lot of generic discounted prescriptions,” Edwards said. “But I know that our local pharmacies have been busier than they’ve ever been — Parson’s (Drugs), CVS and Anson Pharmacy.”
No residents questioned the closure during public meetings, but it generated plenty of private discussions. Residents called Edwards and Town Council members to ask them to convince Walmart to stay.
“The town and county drafted a joint letter to send to Walmart basically pointing out the impacts that they’re going to have on the community,” Edwards said. “We certainly don’t understand why we weren’t given an opportunity to keep them.”
Dr. Fred Thompson, director of the Anson County Health Department, worries that the economic effects will ultimately impact the county’s health outcomes.
According to the N.C. Department of Commerce, Anson is ranked as a Tier 1 (economically distressed) county while neighboring Union County is ranked as Tier 3 — among the 20 North Carolina counties in the best economic shape.
Census data shows that the estimated family income in Anson was $39,126, while Union’s was $75,397 (in 2018 dollars).
More children and adults are without health insurance in Anson than in Union, according to 2016 data from NCIOM. There are also only two primary care physicians per 10,000 population in Anson, in contrast to the state average of seven (2017 data).
Anson has higher rates of adult obesity and smoking, teen birth rates, low birth weights, diabetes, heart disease, food insecurity and other considerations. About 10.3% of residents do not have access to a car compared with the state average of 6.5% and Union’s 2.3%.
Even though Union is next door, Thompson said, the differences in their median household income and health statistics are stark.
“I think coronavirus will, for quite some time — some of the estimates I’ve read are up to a decade — make it that much harder to achieve economic growth and development, which is what we need to have better transportation, have more healthy food options, etc.,” Thompson said.
He added that vaccine availability and effectiveness will also factor in to the coronavirus’s effects on Anson.
While Thompson is looking to the future, the county Health Department has not ignored the effects of COVID-19 on residents.
The state’s stay-at-home order may affect residents’ health, as “people staying at home have avoided going to doctors and hospitals, sometimes to their detriment from a health perspective,” Thompson said. The Health Department has taken measures to prevent the spread, requiring that guests wear masks and ring the doorbell to be admitted.
With Walmart closed and few other retailers available in the area — and as people stock up during the pandemic — it’s been more difficult to find toilet paper, paper towels, ground beef and certain other products.
“I would say that the Walmart closing has made a bad situation with the coronavirus worse,” Thompson said. “I’ve heard other local places like Food Lion and IGA are struggling to keep up.”
Thompson said the school system has provided lunches and that Grace Senior Center has a Meals on Wheels program that is “very active.” The homeless shelter has also been filled to capacity, though it can only house 26 people, he said.
On the positive side, Anson is less congested than many other counties, Thompson noted. As of June 1, Anson only had 70 known positive cases of COVID-19 and one related death, he said.
Thompson is more concerned about long-term health outcomes. He sees economic growth and development as directly related to health outcomes.
“Anson County was around and survived before Walmart got here, and we will survive going forward,” Thompson said, adding that other Walmart locations across the globe have closed.
Edwards was also optimistic.
“This community is resilient,” Edwards said. “I have no doubt that we will come through this and be fine and even grow and thrive from it. I feel empathy for those businesses and small businesses that are here and may not make it, and I wish there was more we could do from the town’s perspective.
“But it’s one of those things where we can provide the basic services we’re required to provide before we can go out and do extra initiatives.”