By Jordan Wolman / Editor-in-Chief of The Brown and White, Lehigh University. This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Tim Westgate walks down from his house, cell phone in hand, to his dock on Lake Underwood.
He then gets into his pontoon boat. It’s quiet on the water. It’s quiet almost everywhere in this corner of rural Pennsylvania’s Wayne County.
If he holds his phone up while he’s out on the water where there’s a clearing, Westgate says, he might get two or three bars of signal. It’s the closest place he can go to connect to the outside world.
Westgate has no internet at home. Instead, he regularly makes the 1.5-mile drive to the nearest library, where he can sit in the parking lot and access free Wi-Fi.
But when COVID-19 hit, those challenges only grew.
Westgate said his son moved up to Wayne County with him this past May after graduating from a technical school in Delaware for physical therapy. But once he arrived, applying for a license to practice physical therapy in Pennsylvania became a chore because of their lack of internet and the closure of state offices due to the pandemic.
Westgate said his son would join him at Sunday church extra early to access the building’s Wi-Fi to work on his cover letters and job applications.
As for Westgate himself, a retired optometrist, his weekly Bible study classes have been moved to Zoom since the pandemic began. In order for Westgate to tune in on Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m., he not only needs to drive to the library, he needs to find a street light to park under — so people on the call are able to see him.
Westgate then climbs in the backseat, resting his device on the truck’s center console.
“There’s no access here,” he said of the area.
Westgate isn’t the only one with no internet.
Honesdale is Wayne County’s most populous municipality and home to 5,000 people. It’s known for its homey Main Street, where residents come in to eat at one of the town’s classic diners and greet the wait staff by name.
The pace is slow but comfortable. On one end of Main Street, there’s a picturesque bridge crossing over a river with mountains rising gently behind it. The fall colors are radiant in this part of the state.
But walk five minutes, and Bruce Johnson doesn’t have the internet connection he needs to work from home.