When The Washington Post reported on virus deniers, it landed in a small town not far from Lawrence

photo by: John Henry/Journal-World File Photo

Downtown Wellsville during the Wellsville High School prom is pictured in this file photo from April 19, 2008.

When The Washington Post went looking for “coronavirus deniers and hoaxers” — as its headline said — it landed in a town not far from here.

The Franklin County community of Wellsville took center stage in the article written by national correspondent Annie Gowen, who is based out of Lawrence. Why Wellsville, a community of about 1,800 people that is just a few miles east and south of Baldwin City? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is Facebook. Your friends aren’t the only ones who read what you post. Sometimes reporters do, too.

The article starts with Walmart worker and area resident Brandon Crist re-posting a meme on Facebook after becoming frustrated with how much America has shut down.

“Does anyone know anyone who has the coronavirus?” the meme, as reported by The Post, starts. “Not just heard about them but actually know them. Statistically none of us are sick . . . yet concerts are canceled, tournaments are canceled and entire school districts shut down. Out of total irrational fear. If you have not previously feared the power of the media you should be terrified of them now. They are exerting their power to shut down America.”

Apparently, the Post did a little looking to see where Crist was from, and the next thing you know a national reporter and photographer last Sunday were in the community, which is about 25 miles south of Lawrence.

“I heard from somebody at church that somebody from The Washington Post was in town, and I said ‘you’ve got to be kidding me,'” Wellsville Mayor Bill Lytle told me Friday.

The Post found several people to talk to. The reporter noted services went on as scheduled at the Wellsville Baptist Church, although it noted efforts were underway to get them moved to online in the future. Pastor Bill Hendricks was quoted as telling his congregation to turn off the television.

“What’s being played over and over again is stoking fear,” Hendricks said, as reported by The Post.

Another churchgoer, 84-year old Robert Cramer, was quoted as wondering how the virus “got out of China.”

“I just wonder how much of this is being done because they want to besmirch our president,” Cramer told The Post. “We’ve had three years of constant criticism. If somebody shot a goose in Greenland out of season they’d blame Trump.”

And the article caught up with at least one Douglas County figure. George McCrary, a banker in Baldwin City, said the media was playing down any positive news during the crisis because that’s not “what sells,” he said. He went on to tell how he has continued to go on largely with his normal routine. The article, though, did quote his daughter, Kaylin, who said she has largely hunkered down and that her father is just being “stubborn in his ways.”

Lytle, the mayor, told me the article is not going over too well in Wellsville. He said he hadn’t yet read it and probably wouldn’t. But he said if the article gives the impression that his community is full of people who don’t take the virus seriously, that is wrong.

“I think everybody is doing what they can,” Lytle said. “The town is a ghost town. The banks are drive-up only. I own a coffee shop and I’ve closed it up for a couple of weeks at least. Lots of the other restaurants are take-out or drive-thru only.”

That wasn’t exactly how the article portrayed the community. It described “relative normalcy” in the town, noting that “restaurants were open and the hardware parking lot was full.” When Lytle heard that bit about the hardware store, he had a quick response.

“I wish we had a hardware store,” he said. The town hasn’t had one for about 20 years. Lytle wasn’t sure which business the reporter may have confused for a hardware store.

He also noted that one of the main reasons downtown Wellsville had anybody in it at all that day was because there was a funeral service taking place that already had been postponed once. Wellsville folks do still come out for a funeral, or at least they did then.

In fairness to the reporter, she was in town last Sunday, and Wellsville — like Lawrence — looked different then than it does now. It seems like Tuesday was a key day here when much more activity began to cease in the community. That’s when Lytle, for instance, said he closed his shop.

The article also does allude to the idea that it is not just people in small northeast Kansas towns who may feel that the reaction to the COVID-19 virus is not always kept in perspective. The article noted that the Pew Research Center released results of a poll Wednesday that found 62% of adults believe the media is exaggerating the risk of the virus, despite dire warnings directly from health officials and medical workers across the globe.

Based on what I heard from Lytle, there are some Wellsville residents who aren’t too happy with how the media has reported on the virus in their small corner of the world.

“It was disappointing they portrayed us in that light. I think people are taking it seriously here,” he said, noting that the American Legion has canceled its Easter egg hunt.

Lytle said he, even as the mayor, doesn’t see many people anymore.

“I put out the trash and go back in the house,” he said. “I don’t see many of my neighbors.”

If you want to read the full article from The Post, you can find it here.


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