In this July 13, 2011 photo, an Amish man works in the field in Centerville, N.Y. Centerville, a town south of Buffalo, has an established Amish community. Longstanding Amish population centers in Pennsylvania and Ohio have lost families while Amish numbers in New York have boomed in the past two years, according to a new study by Elizabethtown College researchers.
Enterprise and public advocacy reporter at PennLive.com.
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(Elizabethtown) — The Amish are known for their large families, large gatherings and large church services. They also shun technology, and modern trappings such as television and the Internet.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, this pastoral but insular way of life poses unique challenges and concerns with regards to ensuring public safety not just among the Amish community but their “English” neighbors.
Overall, though, the Amish seem to be complying with directives regarding hand hygiene and social distancing, said Steven Nolt, a senior scholar at Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.
But he stresses a caveat.
“They take this seriously and have gotten messages from trusted sources,” Nolt said. “At the same time many Amish folks are also taking their cues from their non-Amish neighbors and friends. In a rural context, a semi-rural context, I think we are seeing that not necessarily all Americans in those settings are responding in the same way.”
Just this week, Nolt pointed out, a media outlet published a photo of an animal auction in New Holland. The photo showed a large group of Amish men standing close to one another. Nolt spoke with the reporter, who said all the participants at the livestock auction – Amish and non-Amish alike – were violating social distancing protocol.
Rachel McDevitt / WITF
An Amish man’s hat rests on a rock outside a farmhouse in Leacock Township, Lancaster County, on July 24, 2019.
“That’s what I mean by them taking cues from their non-Amish neighbors, friends and acquaintances,” Nolt said.
Lancaster County has approximately 40,000 Amish residents – what the community calls the Lancaster Settlement, which includes parts of western Chester County. Census data shows that approximately 340,000 Amish live across the United States, including remote rural areas in western New York and upstate Minnesota.
Nolt, like the majority of Americans, has been sheltering in place in recent weeks. He has had no interaction with the Amish community in Lancaster County recently. He said Pennsylvania’s Amish community tends to be well integrated with its non-Amish neighbors.
The Amish may not be as connected to current news sources as the general public, but they are also not cut off.
“There is a popular impression that the Amish are entirely sequestered and that they have no idea what is going on in the world,” Nolt said. “That’s simply not true, especially here in southcentral Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County.”
The Amish are regular newspaper consumers, and have regular contacts with non-Amish friends and co-workers who tend to keep them apprised of current events.
Craig Lehman, a Lancaster County commissioner, said county and state officials have rolled out a robust outreach in Lancaster County to inform the Amish community about the coronavirus pandemic.
The outreach has been carried out by a number of trusted authorities in the Amish community, including Penn State Extension, Ephrata Hospital and the Clinic for Special Children, a primary pediatric care and gene research clinic in Strasburg.
“We are all concerned about our Amish neighbors,” Lehman said. “They are well informed and know what is going on. We are trying to maintain the lines of communication open and we are at least informed in what steps they are taking to mitigate this COVID-19 pandemic.”
Beginning in mid-March, Alice Yoder, the executive director of Community Health for Penn Medicine Lancaster General, began to roll out a concerted effort to connect with the Amish community and raise awareness of the impending pandemic and its dangers.
Trust within the context of non-Amish relationships is critical in moving forward with the Amish community, so Yoder’s team leveraged the relationship her office has with the community to blast health and safety education on coronavirus.
“They’ve been very open, wanting to understand what COVID is about and what it meant to them,” she said.
When it comes to disease, the Amish, in general, prefer to prevent rather than treat, she said.
Her office has communicated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on COVID-19 but in plain language.
“We felt we still needed to distribute the basic information – wash your hands, practice social distancing. The basic things we all are practicing,” Yoder said.
Her office even took out ads in the Busy Beaver, an Amish publication widely read by the community. It also distributed information through fire departments and EMS teams, both trusted sources within the Amish community.
Rachel McDevitt / WITF
Amish can keep up with family members or friends who have moved by reading publications such as The Budget, out of Ohio, or Die Botschaft, printed in Millersburg, Dauphin County.
From the start, the aim has been to connect with Amish leaders and convince them to cancel large gatherings and events.
“If they had to meet we encouraged them to practice proper hygiene,” Yoder said. “But we really talked to them about strongly considering canceling large events. I think for the most part we’ve have had a great reduction in those gatherings.”
Lancaster County officials as of last week had confirmed that Amish leaders had canceled church services up to March 29. Lehman said he did not have an update as to whether church services were canceled this weekend.
Lehman also confirmed that the Amish had also taken cues from their neighbors and canceled schools.
Still officials remain concerned as to the social aspects of Amish life, in particular weddings and funerals, both of which traditionally bring out entire communities.
Lehman said the Amish community has been advised to reduce the size of those gatherings – even postpone weddings.
“I‘m not aware that there is any word that weddings are to be canceled,” he said. “There is sensitivity to the size of them if they are held.”
Nolt, who has authored and co-authored 14 books on Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania German history, notes that Amish funerals, in particular, present a public safety challenge amid the pandemic.
The Amish adhere to the tradition of holding a funeral within three days of a person’s death. Funerals are widely attended by the community.
“It’s pretty important traditionally,” Nolt said. “The idea of keeping people apart during periods of grief is something that would be hard for people to swallow.”
The Amish turn to trusted non-Amish funeral directors for their services but they hold funeral services and viewings in their private homes.
“I don’t think the Amish will defy orders but there may be some hard conversations around funerals,” Nolt said.
Another looming challenge from within the Amish community is the upcoming biannual communion church service that coincides with Easter. The Amish have communion services twice a year, in the fall and again in the spring.
Nolt said it is a community-wide service. Everyone attends.
“It’s really important, the fact that we are coming up toward Easter,” he said. “I wonder if there will be strong resistance to not having church. That would mean not having that service, which is really important.”
Getting news out to the Amish can sometimes be difficult, but in spite of any limits or lag, it does get to them.
“Schools have been closed. Churches are not meeting for worship on Sunday mornings,” Nolt said. “I think it’s been taken seriously with the caveat that they are somewhat taking cues from their non-Amish neighbors who may or may not be following directives as carefully as we would wish.”
Yoder said she was confident the Amish community was aware of and receptive about the information and guidance on the pandemic.
“It’s not like they don’t know what is happening in the world,” she said. “We have a good sense that they do. We can’t say all but the message is out in the Amish community about how to prevent it and that it exists.”