The Pandemic Was Just One Of Marshalltown’s 2020 Challenges

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Rogelio "Roger" Ibarra owns Mi Ranchita Mexican Grill in Marshalltown. "We've got a full menu of quite a bit of different things, but you got to try our pizza too," Ibarra says. "I think if you can come out and support local businesses, make sure you do so. I mean, that's how we stay above water." (He and his chef took off their masks for the photo. Ibarra requires staff and customers to wear masks.) Photo Kassidy Arena / IPR
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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio News

Iowans have dealt with a year of COVID-19. But the pandemic was just the tip of the iceberg for one small city. The heavily Latino city of Marshalltown had a rough 2020, but its people have persevered despite their challenges.

Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer.

Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer listed 2020’s events on his fingers. He started with January. The city was still recovering from the 2018 tornado.

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“And then we get hit with the third thing, which is the derecho and well, third thing derecho fourth thing the…third thing COVID, fourth thing derecho. Can’t even keep my crises in order,” he shook his head as he corrected his timeline of crises.

“Talk about putting weight on our shoulders just as a community. We’ve had to endure so much with those things that have happened,” Greer admitted.

Marshalltown has the largest population in Marshall County. It had its first positive COVID-19 case almost exactly a year ago. Since then, the county has reported a little more than 5,000 positive cases and 73 deaths.

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To help slow down the spread, Greer issued a mask mandate for the city. Even though Gov. Kim Reynolds said local governments could not issue their own mask requirements. Greer explained people won’t be punished for not wearing one in Marshalltown, but they will definitely “get looked at askance.”

And that shows. Almost every storefront has a sign requiring a mask for entry. Greer attributed this to the close-knit community of Marshalltown. More than 30 percent of whom are Hispanic or Latino. And COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on Latinos.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Hispanic or Latino people are 3.1 times more likely than white, non-Hispanic people to be hospitalized with COVID-19. They are more than two times more likely to die from the virus.

Rogelio “Roger” Ibarra owns a Mi Ranchito Mexican Grill in the city.

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“It’s been a challenge. I mean, owning a restaurant in itself is already a challenge. But with a pandemic, on top of that has definitely added more stress, more work for us, with all the restrictions,” Ibarra said.

He makes a point to try to balance restrictions on the state level and on the local level. At this moment, there is not a mask requirement for the state of Iowa, but Ibarra still requires his staff and customers wear a mask to follow local restrictions. He estimated about half of his business right now depends on to-go orders.

“Even before it was the requirement, I was out and about with my mask, you know, showing, or leading by example,” Ibarra said. His toddler son does not quite feel the same. Ibarra said he has difficulty reminding his son to keep his mask on. He chuckled as he admitted, “It’s hard to take him out in public and him not wearing a mask because people are gonna stare.”

Ibarra said he’s been to a few other places in Iowa, but none ever felt like home. That’s why he settled in Marshalltown with his son and opened the restaurant in 2016.

“And, you know, we just get along great. I mean, I think it’s a great community. So I think we have that strong bond in the community,” Ibarra said. “We get a lot of support.”

And now that the vaccine distribution is underway, he has noticed more positivity in his customers. More than 3,000 people in the county have received the vaccine. Over a cup of coffee, Lana Bradstream said she noticed people felt different when Iowa announced its first positive case.

“There was a lot of concern, a lot of fear,” Bradstream said. “Because people didn’t know what they were dealing with. All they knew was, Oh, my gosh, the virus is here. Now what do we do?”

She’s the editor of the Times-Republican, the newspaper based in Marshalltown. She grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. When she moved to Marshalltown, she noticed how diverse the city is.

“It’s wonderful to see all these people from all these different areas of the world living together in Marshalltown. And you get to learn about them, and it’s just fascinating,” Bradstream said. “It’s like having the whole world right here in central Iowa.”

Both Greer and Ibarra noted they have remained informed about the development of COVID-19 by following the news and talking to people in the community. Bradstream was glad to hear, but she said her role has shifted as COVID-19 has turned a year old in Iowa.

“I think people are experiencing pandemic burnout. I think they’re tired of hearing about it. And I think they want to return to some sort of some sort of normalcy,” Bradstream said. “Having a variety of things to talk about was certainly normal before. And they really want to get back to it.”

She said one of her biggest stories of 2020 was actually derecho recovery, since the pandemic has remained a constant, she has tried to continue reporting the “most important story of the day,” which has constantly changed in Marshalltown throughout 2020.

Bradstream said once people had time to process and realize how much the virus was affecting their own families and friends, “They accepted it. Because of that initial fear and concern that they had for their health and the health of other people,” Bradstream explained.

And one of those people was Karina Hernandez. She contracted the virus last November. She is a mother of three and on the Marshalltown Community School board. She said the pandemic has definitely been scary for a lot of people.

“So they were scared. So we did live in fear for a little bit because the news, obviously, you know, we all watch it,” Hernandez said.

Karina Hernandez member of the Marshalltown Community School board

In her capacity as a school coordinator, she has worked with families all throughout Marshalltown. She said one big issue parents have experienced throughout the pandemic was the transition to online schooling.

“It’s been quite a bit of a struggle because our families, we live in a community where our kids live in poverty. So internet…sometimes there’s not service in their home,” Hernandez said. “That’s something that was a bit of a difficulty to work through at the beginning of this pandemic, to make sure and ensure that all kids had internet at home, or even a device.”

But she said now some of those fears have dissipated, at least a little bit. The schools have provided devices and hotspots to students who need them. And classes have continued. “I mean, I think that’s still an ongoing struggle, but it’s better,” she said.

Hernandez said the whole town probably knows at least one person who got the virus or died from it, and in that way, COVID-19 has actually brought people together.

“I think our community honestly has been through a lot. And one thing that I will say about our community is that we have learned,” Hernandez said. “But because of everything that we’ve been through that tornado, the derecho, and now the pandemic, I think we have learned to work together.”

Greer said he will not lift the mask mandate in Marshalltown until positive cases have flattened and the majority of people have received their vaccine. And Hernandez doesn’t have a problem with that.

“We’re a community that cares. We’re a community where, you know, we are going to take care of not only our family, but our neighbor,” Hernandez said. “And I think it’s been accepted.”

Hernandez stopped to think about what she hopes for once the pandemic subsides.

“Definitely, we don’t need any natural disasters, pandemics, or any of the source. I’m honestly hoping for…” She struggled to put her thoughts into words. “And I don’t even know what normal is. I’m hoping for a year where it’s less…I’m trying to think of how I can say without using that word, but I can’t. So less drama, less, less news.”

One thing she and many people in the small city of Marshalltown know: they’re strong. They have a habit of lifting themselves up after a crisis. Rebuild after a tornado, pick up after a derecho, and support each other during a global pandemic.

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