Deep in Chester County, where the road turned to gravel, a flash of red bolted from a United States Postal Service truck on a dreary Friday morning. Tim Viola, who played fullback on his high school football team, cradled the small package like pigskin, sprinting up to the large home set back from its long front lawn.

He wore a red bandanna, red Nikes, and a red, hooded sweatshirt that said “Italian Stallion” on the back. Back in the saddle, Viola drove deeper into West Vincent Township, passing barns and crossing over one-lane bridges. Horses, used to the sight of his truck, seemed to barely notice, and men driving farming tractors gave him a wave as he squeezed by.

“Hey, right up here, I always see a coyote in the field,” he said between sprints. “Keep your eyes open.”

Viola, 54, has been delivering mail — a whopping 400 stops on his current route — for decades, but he’s not like a mailman you’d see in the city. He’s a rural letter carrier, one of 131,000 members of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association. Among the seven unions representing the Postal Service’s 600,000 employees, the NRLCA, founded in 1908, is made up of carriers who deliver on 78,500 routes in suburban and rural areas. They don’t wear uniforms, and use their own vehicles on 36,900 of those routes, some ranging up to 185 miles in one day.

Ronnie Stutts, president of the NRLCA, has called rural carriers the “backbone of America.”

The USPS, which has not turned a profit in the last 13 years, has come under increasing fire from elected officials calling for the agency to privatize amid debates about coronavirus bailouts. The Trump administration’s fiscal 2021 budget request, released in February before COVID-19 crippled the country, proposed pay cuts for postal workers, as well as more partnerships with private shippers. In April, the president called the Postal Service “a joke.”

Employees say the effects of any cutbacks would be felt hardest by those living along rural routes, particularly if the agency is forced to raise package prices to compete with the private shippers.

"We have a lot of people who are disabled, who can’t get out and move, but still want to live in a rural setting,” said Christopher Neal, a rural letter carrier who has a 90-mile route in Tioga County, about 225 miles northwest of Philadelphia. “I physically hand the package to that person. No private company is going to do that. That’s what we call the last mile.”

Battle over a bailout

The USPS was created in 1792 as a public service, to be funded by revenues from postage and mail services. Like the military, it wasn’t expected to turn profits. In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund future retiree health benefits. That, critics of the act say, debilitated the agency. Increased competition from Amazon, UPS, and FedEx has cut into the USPS, too — even though those companies often use the Postal Service for rural routes.

“They don’t want to send somebody there on a 25-mile drive to deliver one package,” said Frank Wozniak, 59, a rural letter carrier out of Washington County, south of Pittsburgh.

In 2018, President Donald Trump commissioned a U.S Department of the Treasury task force to look at the Postal Service. Upon the report’s release in December of that year, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said the agency was on an “unsustainable financial path.”

In recent months, the battle over COVID-19 bailouts has been split down partisan lines. The U.S. House of Representatives sent a bill to the Senate that included $25 billion for the Postal Service. Trump has said that, rather than seeking a bailout, the agency should raise rates. If the USPS doesn’t get a federal boost, supporters say, mail-in voting efforts this election season could be hampered.

“We have to fight for the Post Office,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in April.

In early May, the Postal Service released second-quarter numbers that showed an increase in package revenue because COVID-19 restrictions have prompted more people to shop from home. Still, officials said, the agency did not expect “package revenue growth over the medium-to-long term to offset its losses in mail service revenue caused by COVID-19.”

When asked to comment on the political battle brewing over the Postal Service, a spokesperson directed The Inquirer to a Pew Research Center survey, released in April, that found that the USPS was America’s “favorite government agency.”

Busier than Christmas

On a recent day at the small, stone post office on Kimberton Road in Chester Springs, the increased package volume was evident, with boxes large and small piled on most flat surfaces. Many carriers said it was worse than Christmas, noting that deliveries of above-ground pools and backyard games were way up.

“Letters are down, but as you can see, we’ve more than made up for it with packages,” said carrier Judi Anderson, 64.

Denise Brown, the postmaster in Chester Springs, said it’s much more of a family in the smaller post office compared with other buildings she has worked in. The Chester Springs office has 11 routes, all of them considered rural, delivering to 5,622 locations.

“I went out with Tim once and couldn’t believe it," Brown said. "Nothing but gravel.”

Chester County isn’t nearly as rural as Tioga. Neal said he sees a whole zoo’s worth of wildlife, including bobcats and black bears. His grandfather, who became a rural letter carrier after World War II, used to pick up groceries for elderly residents along his route.

“I don’t have any paved roads,” said Neal, who uses his own vehicle for deliveries. “It’s all dirt.”

Most of the rural letter carriers in Chester Springs have been on their routes for years and were eager to show off “Thank You” cards and pictures in crayon. They’ve always received them, but they’ve noticed more during the COVID-19 pandemic. Customers have given them hand sanitizer and masks, too.

“I got apple dumplings last week,” said carrier Kathy Summers. “So many warm blessings.”