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Ely: Remote, Not Out Of The Loop

Ely sits 240 miles north of Las Vegas, 240 miles west of Salt Lake City, and more than 300 miles east of Reno, making it one of the most remote cities in the Lower 48 states.

That remoteness is part of the reason why the city and surrounding White Pine County have avoided much of the pandemic, suffering only a handful of COVID-19 cases and no deaths.

But just because it’s in the middle of nowhere didn’t put Ely out of the loop.

Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson told KNPR's State of Nevada that the city is at the intersection of three major U.S. highways and thousands of vehicles from around the country pass through that intersection every day.

The city relies heavily on mining, which didn't shut down, and the state prison, which also didn't shut down. Robertson believes those two industries helped slow the impact on the town.

“I think we’ve been affected less than some of the other places in the state. Vegas, Wendover and some other places that really rely heavily on casinos and economic traffic from vacationers,” he said.

In addition, the local bank and small-business community worked together to apply for federal relief loans, including spreading the word on eligibility and encouraging sometimes skeptical businesses to apply.

“Anytime the federal government rolls out a program it isn’t usually something that rural Nevadans are like, ‘I’ve got to go see what that’s about,’” Robertson said, “We’re always just a little suspicious about having to fill out paperwork.”

Robertson admits that the pandemic's impact on the area's summer tourism season will hurt the economy long term but he credits the city's staff for doing their part.

“The city was pretty proactive – budgetary-wise – in making some changes. The employees all took a 12-and-a-half percent pay cut that we evaluate month by month. If revenue comes back up to normal, we’re hoping to get them back up to full pay as soon as we can,” he said.

But with large summer events canceled, limits on visits to the Nevada Northern Railroad Museum and a shut down on overnight camping in some parks, the area is going to take a big hit.

“We’re doing our best to open as much as we possibly can and still stay safe, but it is certainly not business as usual,” Robertson said.

Ely’s remoteness and lack of information sources led to a heavy reliance on local radio, something the Los Angeles Times wrote about in the spring.

Robertson explained that the rumors were running wild at the beginning of the pandemic, which is why he decided to go on the two local radio stations to answer questions.

He said talking to directly to residents helped quell some of the rumors and fill the information vacuum. 

Robertson said at the beginning of the outbreak 99 percent of businesses in the area followed the governor's orders and shut down. He said they did their best to comply but now as the situation drags on, it is getting more difficult to get people to follow directives.

“This has been going on now two to three months and the longer it goes on – and especially the longer it goes on without any significant impact, the harder it is to sell the CDC guidelines and masks and everything like that,” he said.

Robertson said they're still in education mode of the governor's directive on face coverings but most people are looking to comply with the order and keep their community safe. 

Nathan Robertson, mayor, Ely

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.