The Masque of the Red State
Guess which county in the U.S. is the wealthiest?
No, it’s not New York County or any of the surrounding boroughs’ counties. It’s not San Francisco County, despite the Google busses and the insane real estate prices, nor is it Santa Clara County, the cradle of Silicon Valley. It’s not Santa Barbara County either, even though the median home price there is over $1.1 million.
It’s Teton County, Wyoming. In a state with less than 600,000 people and a population density that ranks 55 out of 56 U.S. states and territories, Teton County — or at least its major city, Jackson Hole, is also the playground of the ultra-wealthy.
The rich like a home where the buffalo roam
And who can blame them? Jackson Hole, surrounded as it is by wide-open spaces framed by the jaw-dropping Grand Tetons, is one of the most scenic places in the U.S. if not the world. It’s the kind of place where billionaires, weary of the urban rat race they dwell above in their multiple city digs, can really stretch out and relax.
Amidst Jackson Hole’s rugged beauty, the far-more-than-comfortably-well-off can get in touch with the spirit of the Old West. They can discover their inner cowpoke. They can get close to the land, without getting too much of it on their hands.
Another attraction is that Wyoming has no state income tax, no inheritance or estate tax, and some of the lowest property and sales taxes in the country.
Jackson Hole is also the national poster child for income disparity
Justin Farrell is a professor at Yale who spent five years living in the Jackson Hole area and perusing its yawning gap between the top 1% of its residents (whether full-time or fly-in) and the remaining 99%.
Dr. Farrell is also the author of Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West. He points to a study done by the Economic Policy Institute which found that the Jackson Hole metro area (which actually includes part of Idaho as well as Wyoming) has the highest concentration of wealth among its top 1% of any such area in the U.S.
So Jackson Hole is a great place to hunker down in a pandemic
If you’ve got the deluxe ranch and private jet to get you there. In his recent piece, “Where the Very Rich Fly to Hide” for the New York Times (April 15, 2020), Dr. Farrell describes the wealthy passengers who have landed there in recent weeks, eager to put some scenic distance between themselves and coronavirus hot zones.
We must assume these folks didn’t get as rich as they are by being stupid or unprepared. They’re surely aware that there’s only one general hospital in the area, St. John’s Health, and that the county health officer in late March asked nonresident homeowners to leave or stay away. So some of the visitors have brought their own medical equipment to their wilderness havens, including, reportedly, at least one ventilator. As Dr. Farrell writes,
One physician told me, “I know a doctor in town who was asked to go to someone’s property once the private ventilator arrived, to make sure it was operational.” Disturbed by this hoarding of medical supplies, this person said, the doctor refused.
Here’s where Edgar Allan Poe comes in
In Poe’s famous short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” first published in 1842, Poe tells of an unnamed country ravaged by a fearsome plague. Fabulously wealthy Prince Prospero and 1,000 of his closest (and richest) friends take refuge in his luxurious abbey. There they wall themselves off from the contagion and focus on keeping themselves entertained while they wait for the unpleasantness outside to (literally) die down.
Six months into their deluxe shelter-in-place, Prospero decides to fend off cabin fever by throwing a lavish masquerade ball. Everybody shows up, of course, in the weirdest and wildest costumes their servants (who are locked up with them) can produce. This being a Poe story, it’s all great phantasmagorical fun until one guest shows up in an outfit that even this jaded group of revelers find disturbing.
You, with your 21st Century diet of fast-paced storytelling, have no doubt guessed the ending. The mysterious guest is gruesomely revealed to be none other than the plague itself, and everybody in the abbey dies. Gruesomely.
You can’t outrun the plague. Or, it turns out, coronavirus
Have the COVID cooties tagged along unbeknownst with the wealthy health refugees? No one can say for sure, but the virus is, relatively speaking, trending in Teton County. As Dr. Farrell writes,
Teton County has 57 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the highest number in the state after the much more populous Laramie County, with 62. But Teton County far and away leads Wyoming in the rate of cases, with 242.9 per 100,000 people.
Nobody there had died at the time the Times article appeared — thank God — but cases in Wyoming aren’t expected to peak until the end of April.
I truly hope Poe’s story does not come true in Jackson Hole
I wouldn’t wish the misery and danger of COVID-19 on anyone, rich or poor. And as Dr. Farrell points out, there are those among the Teton jet-setters who are contributing to local causes and doing what they can to shore up organizations such as the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole.
But this pandemic is throwing into sharp relief the harsh realities of economic disparity. That inequality shows up not just in terms of income, but in exposure to the virus — so difficult to avoid for frontline and essential workers in service industries — and in access to testing and health care.
It’s hard to blame anyone for wanting safety for themselves and their family, but the optics aren’t great for people who use their wealth to hide from conditions the rest of us are forced to confront.
What if Prince Prospero and his friends had stayed in town and used their economic power to help even out the risk among everyone in the country? Maybe they would have died anyway. Or maybe they would have brought about a swifter end to the plague.
Either way, history, and Poe, would have looked on them more kindly.