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People familiar with the Amish community in Pennsylvania say many are taking the coronavirus and subsequent business closures and calls for social distancing very seriously. But other Amish, just like some of their “English” counterparts, are not.
“A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to about 30 Amish families [about coronavirus] and there was a great degree of skepticism about it,” said Phil Lapp, a Mennonite who grew up among the Amish in Lancaster County and now gives tours there. “Over the past couple of days, though, I would say a majority are adhering to the call to stay home, but 10% to 20% are extremely upset about the outside world impacting their livelihood.”
While Lancaster County has 67 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and two deaths, Craig Lehman, a county commissioner, said Thursday he was unaware of any among the Amish.
On Friday afternoon, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf complicated life further for the Amish by adding Lancaster County to his list of stay-at-home counties.
Pennsylvania, according to AmishAmerica.com, leads the nation with 53 Amish settlements, and Lancaster County, where the Amish population is approximately 39,000, has the highest concentration. While attitudes about medicine and preventive care can differ even between individual families, they will seek it out in emergencies.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health at Pennsylvania State University sent out a letter discussing the coronavirus intended to reach Amish and Old Order Mennonite farmers, as well as a news release titled “Plain Communities Can Protect Themselves Against COVID-19." Steve Nolt, an Elizabethtown College professor who has studied Amish society for decades, said the release would have been picked up by agricultural publications.
“Please take this virus seriously. Your family’s life may depend on it,” the letter urged. “Some think that this virus is a political ploy, but that is a misconception and people of all political parties are dying.”
It quoted Holmes Morton, who founded the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg in 1989 and now operates a similar center in Belleville, Mifflin County. He specializes in genetic disorders of Amish and Mennonite communities, including “maple syrup urine disease,” in which the body is unable to process certain protein amino acids. Nolt said that Morton is revered by the Amish and other Plain sects and that they would listen to his warnings.
“A gathering of hundreds of people at a fund-raising dinner or benefit auction could easily become the source of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the [Amish and Mennonite] community,” Morton said in the letter.
Two weeks ago, elected officials called for the cancellation of the popular Gordonville “Mud Sale,” one of many large spring auctions that take place in Plain communities. The event was not postponed.
The March 17 edition of the Fishwrapper, a newspaper popular among the Amish and Mennonites, featured an editorial stating that the coronavirus “has people running scared. What is it they fear? They worry they will pick up the virus. They panic when they think how it could affect them if they contract it. They listen to news reports that vary in their presentation — one promoting it as something to be feared and the other as nothing to worry about.”
Nolt said certain aspects of Amish life could put them at greater risk for catching and spreading the coronavirus. Amish church services are held on Sunday mornings inside homes, with sometimes as many as 175 people in one house, and can last three hours. The men usually gather outside beforehand, he said, and all of them shake hands.
“There’s a different sense of personal space,” he said.
There’s also a higher likelihood that Amish homes have elderly family members living in them with their children. "It’s very rare for older Amish folks to live in retirement or nursing homes,” Nolt said.
Lehman said there have been outreach efforts by the county to talk to the Amish about the coronavirus.
“The most recent update was that some of them are definitely getting the message. We got word that last week, church had been canceled up to two weeks,” Lehman said. "Word was sent out to the Amish to reduce the size of weddings or postpone them, if possible.”
That sentiment was also relayed in the letter Penn State sent out to the communities. “Avoid auctions, weddings, fund-raising banquets, shaking hands, and even church for the time being,” it warned.
Nolt said canceling church comes at a particularly bad time for the Amish. They share communion just twice a year, one in autumn, the other in spring. The spring communion is approaching soon.
“There’s probably going to be even more resistance to canceling church because of it,” he said.
The Mennonite World Review said on March 16 that Mennonite services would be held online throughout North America. Although most eschew technology, some Plain communities use computers.
On Thursday, Lapp, the tour operator, was helping deliver fabric masks that the Amish are making to the Lancaster Health Center. The masks are being sewn at Bird-in-Hand Fabric, and while not medical grade, they are “better than nothing,” he said. The Amish are reading newspapers and know what’s happening, but "at the same time, they’re not wearing masks, they’re not social distancing themselves, and I do fear for their elderly. "