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The Pandemic Was Just One Of Marshalltown's 2020 Challenges

Kassidy Arena
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.)

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 listed 2020's events on his fingers. He started with January. The city was still recovering from the 2018 tornado.

“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.

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."

Kassidy Arena
Many ethnic and racial groups are represented in Marshalltown's population. More than 30 percent are Hispanic or Latino. "It's wonderful to see all these people from all these different areas of the world living together in Marshalltown," Lana Bradstream, Times-Republican editor, said. "It's like having the whole world right here in central Iowa."

And that shows. Almost every storefront has a sign requiring 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.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,"Race and ethnicity are risk markers for other underlying conditions that affect health including socioeconomic status, access to health care, and exposure to the virus related to occupation, e.g., frontline, essential, and critical infrastructure workers."

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 Ranchita Mexican Grill in the city.

“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."

Kassidy Arena
Mayor Joel Greer issued a local mask mandate for the city of Marshalltown. Nearly every storefront had a sign similar to the one pictured above. "I may be the last one to give it up," Greer admitted.

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.

Courtesy Marshalltown Community School District
A teacher smiles at a student in the Marshalltown Community School District through COVID-19 safety measures. Hernandez serves on the school board for the district. "Several families reached out to me, you know, they were scared, they were scared, because we do live in a community with families that their household holds different generations," Hernandez said.

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.

En Español

La traducción de Hola Iowa.

Los habitantes de Iowa han tenido que afrontar un año de COVID-19. Pero la pandemia fue sólo la punta del iceberg para una pequeña ciudad. La ciudad de Marshalltown, con una población mayoritariamente latina, tuvo un 2020 difícil, pero sus habitantes han salido adelante a pesar de las dificultades.

El alcalde de Marshalltown, Joel Greer, enumeró con los dedos los acontecimientos de 2020. Comenzó con enero. La ciudad todavía se estaba recuperando del tornado de 2018.

“Y luego nos golpea el tercer evento, el Derecho y bueno, el tercer evento el cuarto el… el tercer evento el COVID, el cuarto el Derecho. Ni siquiera puedo mantener el orden de mis crisis”, negó con la cabeza mientras corregía su cronología de crisis.

“Hablando de cargar con el peso sobre nuestros hombros como comunidad. Hemos tenido que soportar mucho con esas desgracias que han ocurrido”, admitió Greer.

Marshalltown tiene la mayor población del condado de Marshall. Tuvo su primer caso positivo de COVID-19 hace casi exactamente un año. Desde entonces, el condado ha registrado algo más de 5,000 casos positivos y 73 muertes.

Para ayudar a frenar la propagación, Greer emitió una orden de uso de cubrebocas para la ciudad. A pesar de que la gobernadora Kim Reynolds dijo que los gobiernos locales no podían emitir sus propios requisitos de cubrebocas. Greer explicó que la gente no será castigada por no llevar una en Marshalltown, pero definitivamente “se les mirará con recelo”.

Y eso se nota. Casi todas las tiendas tienen un cartel que exige el uso de cubrebocas para entrar. Greer lo atribuye a la estrecha comunidad de Marshalltown. Más del 30% de ellos son hispanos o latinos. Y el COVID-19 ha tenido un efecto desproporcionado en los latinos.

Los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades informaron que los hispanos o latinos tienen 3.1 veces más probabilidades que los blancos no hispanos de ser hospitalizados con COVID-19. Tienen más de dos veces más probabilidades de morir a causa del virus.

Rogelio “Roger” Ibarra es propietario de un restaurante Mi Ranchito Mexican Grill en la ciudad.

“Ha sido un reto. Es decir, tener un restaurante en sí mismo ya es un reto. Pero con una pandemia, además de eso ha añadido definitivamente más estrés, más trabajo para nosotros, con todas las restricciones”, dijo Ibarra.

Él se empeña en intentar equilibrar las restricciones a nivel estatal y local. En este momento, el estado de Iowa no exige el uso de cubrebocas, pero Ibarra sigue exigiendo que su personal y sus clientes las lleven para cumplir las restricciones locales. Calcula que aproximadamente la mitad de su negocio en este momento depende de los pedidos para llevar.

“Incluso antes de que fuera obligatorio, salía a la calle con mi cubrebocas, ya sabes, mostrando, o dando ejemplo”, dijo Ibarra. Su hijo pequeño no siente lo mismo. Ibarra afirma que le cuesta recordar a su hijo que se ponga la mascarilla. Se rió al admitir: “Es difícil sacarlo en público y que no lleve el cubrebocas porque la gente se va a quedar mirando”.

Ibarra dijo que había estado en otros lugares de Iowa, pero que ninguno se sentía como su hogar. Por eso se instaló en Marshalltown con su hijo y abrió el restaurante en 2016.

“Y, ya sabes, nos llevamos muy bien. Quiero decir, creo que es una gran comunidad. Así que creo que tenemos ese fuerte vínculo en la comunidad”, dijo Ibarra. “Recibimos mucho apoyo”.

Y ahora que la distribución de la vacuna está en marcha, ha notado más positividad en sus clientes. Más de 3,000 personas del condado han recibido la vacuna. Mientras tomaba una taza de café, Lana Bradstream dijo que notó que la gente se sentía diferente cuando Iowa anunció su primer caso positivo.

“Había mucha preocupación, mucho miedo”, dijo Bradstream. “Porque la gente no sabía a qué se enfrentaba. Todo lo que sabían era: “Dios mío, el virus está aquí. ¿Y ahora qué hacemos?”.

Ella es la editora del Times-Republican, el periódico con sede en Marshalltown. Creció en la Reserva Sioux de Standing Rock. Cuando se trasladó a Marshalltown, se dio cuenta de lo diversa que es la ciudad.

“Es maravilloso ver a toda esa gente de todas las zonas del mundo conviviendo en Marshalltown. Y puedes aprender sobre ellos, y es simplemente fascinante”, dijo Bradstream. “Es como tener el mundo entero aquí en el centro de Iowa”.

Tanto Greer como Ibarra señalaron que se han mantenido informados sobre el desarrollo de COVID-19 gracias al seguimiento de las noticias y a las conversaciones con personas de la comunidad. Bradstream se alegró de la noticia, pero dijo que su papel ha cambiado cuando COVID-19 ha cumplido un año en Iowa.

“Creo que la gente está agotada de la pandemia. Creo que están cansados de oír hablar de ella. Y creo que quieren volver a algún tipo de normalidad”, dijo Bradstream. “Tener una variedad de cosas de las que hablar era ciertamente normal antes. Y de verdad quieren volver a ello”.

Ella dijo que una de sus mayores historias de 2020 fue en realidad la recuperación del Derecho, ya que la pandemia se ha mantenido como una constante, ella ha tratado de seguir informando de la “historia más importante del día”, que ha cambiado constantemente en Marshalltown a lo largo de 2020.

Bradstream dijo que una vez que la gente tuvo tiempo de asimilar y darse cuenta de lo mucho que el virus estaba afectando a sus propias familias y amigos, “lo aceptaron”. Debido a ese miedo inicial y a la preocupación que tenían por su salud y la de otras personas”, explicó Bradstream.

Y una de esas personas fue Karina Hernández. Ella contrajo el virus el pasado mes de noviembre. Es madre de tres hijos y forma parte del consejo escolar de la comunidad de Marshalltown. Dijo que la pandemia ha sido definitivamente aterradora para mucha gente.

“De modo que estaban asustados. Así que vivimos con miedo durante un tiempo porque las noticias, obviamente, ya sabes, todos las vemos”, dijo Hernández.

En su calidad de coordinadora escolar, ha trabajado con familias de todo Marshalltown. Dijo que un gran problema que los padres han experimentado a lo largo de la pandemia fue la transición a la educación en línea.

“Ha sido un poco difícil porque nuestras familias, vivimos en una comunidad donde nuestros hijos viven en la pobreza. Así que Internet… a veces no hay servicio en su casa”, dijo Hernández. “Eso es algo que fue un poco difícil de trabajar al principio de esta pandemia, para asegurarnos y garantizar que todos los niños tuvieran internet en casa, o incluso un dispositivo”.

Pero dijo que ahora algunos de esos temores se han disipado, al menos un poco. Las escuelas han proporcionado dispositivos y puntos de acceso a los estudiantes que los necesitan. Y las clases continúan. “Quiero decir, creo que todavía es una lucha continua, pero es mejor”, dijo.

Hernández dijo que toda la ciudad probablemente conoce al menos a una persona que contrajo el virus o que murió a causa de él, y que en ese sentido, COVID-19 ha unido a la gente.

“Creo que nuestra comunidad, sinceramente, ha pasado por muchas cosas. Y una cosa que diré sobre nuestra comunidad es que hemos aprendido”, dijo Hernández. “Debido a todo lo que hemos pasado, el tornado, el derecho y ahora la pandemia, creo que hemos aprendido a trabajar juntos”.

Greer dijo que no quitará la orden de uso de cubrebocas en Marshalltown hasta que los casos positivos se hayan reducido y la mayoría de las personas hayan recibido la vacuna. Y Hernández no tiene ningún problema con eso.

“Somos una comunidad que se preocupa. Somos una comunidad en la que, ya sabes, vamos a cuidar no sólo de nuestra familia, sino de nuestro vecino”, dijo Hernández. “Y creo que ha sido aceptado”.

Hernández se detuvo a pensar en lo que espera una vez que la pandemia disminuya.

“Definitivamente, no necesitamos ninguna catástrofe natural, ni pandemia, ni nada de eso. Sinceramente, espero…” Le costó poner sus pensamientos en palabras. “Y ni siquiera sé lo que es normal. Espero un año en el que haya menos… Estoy intentando pensar en cómo decirlo sin usar esa palabra, pero no puedo. Así que menos drama, menos, menos noticias”.

Una cosa que ella y mucha gente de la pequeña ciudad de Marshalltown saben: son fuertes. Suelen levantarse después de una crisis. Reconstruyen después de un tornado, se levantan después de un derecho y se apoyan mutuamente durante una pandemia mundial.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines