A cold wind whipped through the prairie as they laid Buck Timmins to rest.
Timmins, a longtime coach and referee, was not the first person in Mitchell, S.D., pop. 15,600, to die of the coronavirus. He was not even the first that week.
As the funeral director tucked blankets over the knees of Timmins’s wife, Nanci, Pastor Rhonda Wellsandt-Zell told the small group of masked mourners that just as there had been seasons in the coach’s life — basketball season, football season, volleyball season — Mitchell was now enduring a phase of its own.
In a state where the Republican governor, Kristi L. Noem, has defied calls for a statewide mask mandate even as cases hit record levels, many in this rural community an hour west of Sioux Falls ignored the virus for months, not bothering with masks or social distancing. Restaurants were packed. Big weddings and funerals went on as planned.
Then people started dying. The wife of the former bank president. A state legislator. The guy whose family has owned the bike shop since 1959. Then Timmins, a mild-spoken 72-year-old who had worked with hundreds of local kids during six decades as a Little League and high school coach and referee.
His death shook Mitchell just as its leaders were contemplating something previously denounced and dismissed: a requirement that its staunchly conservative residents wear masks.
As Wellsandt-Zell led those mourning Timmins in the hymn “Jesus Loves Me,” the rumble of an approaching helicopter cut through the sound of the singing and the mourners’ soft tears. In Mitchell, the medical emergency helicopter, once a rare occurrence, now comes nearly every day, ferrying the growing number of people desperately ill with covid-19 to a hospital that might be able to save them.
Sirens echoing through the empty streets of New York marked the pandemic’s first phase. Swirling blades of helicopters on the American plains is the soundtrack of a deadly fall.
Oh, my God, here we go again, Wellsandt-Zell thought. Another one.