South Florida’s hip nightclubs, pricey restaurants and stunning Atlantic views are miles away – culturally and geographically — from the state’s rural farmlands and small-town communities that lie inland or straddle the Georgia line.
The coronavirus has created two worlds in Florida.
The first world is South Florida, the epicenter of the new virus that has caused more than a thousand COVID-19 infections in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Broward and Palm Beach each have had three deaths.
The second world is a swath of northern Florida counties and a few south-central counties that are pristine, medically speaking, when it comes to the coronavirus.
In that second world, 20 counties in Florida have reported no deaths and no COVID-19 infections, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.
None at all.
Overall, Florida has 67 counties, and 47 of them have at least one COVID-19 infection. The vast majority of those counties can’t even compare to the South Florida epicenter.
But what’s really curious is the 20 counties that have zero infections.
Why is that?
The Florida Phoenix asked officials in some of the counties about the zero infections. These officials aren’t scientists or epidemiologists, but they know their communities and the commonalities: small populations, a lot of acreage, and few outside visitors.
“We don’t’ have any tourism here,” said Jimmy Williams, county coordinator for Union County, in north central Florida. “We don’t have people from out of state, out of county…We don’t have big restaurants, we don’t have any hotel in our county.”
Union County has just 15,237 residents, based on the latest U.S. Census estimates, and the county is mostly timberland, Williams said.
It’s a family-oriented atmosphere, he said. Williams described residents as country people, and “that’s where they want to be.”
Another zero-infection county is Glades. It’s an inland rural county in south-central Florida focused on agriculture and farming. The population estimate is 13,811, and communities are spread apart.
Bob Jones, the county manager, said there’s no big grocery stores akin to a Publix and only a half dozen gas stations in the county. There are a couple of fast-food chains, but mom-and-pop restaurants still operate.
Residents understand that the coronavirus is serious, Jones said, “and they don’t want to try to get (coronavirus) cases in here.”
In Jefferson County, near Florida’s state capital in Tallahassee, county coordinator Parrish Barwick talked about the link between traveling abroad and coronavirus cases, but he said in his county, people don’t travel that much.
He also said that there’s no hospital in Jefferson County, so residents might not be tested for the coronavirus.
The county also has a small population, estimated at 14,246.
“We have a lot of space, and our families and kids can stay on their own property,” Barwick said.
Though the county has reported no COVID-19 infections so far, it has taken very seriously the guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ward off the coronavirus.
“We shut down our library and didn’t allow people to bring outside influences into the library,” Barwick said.
The county also took seriously directives from Gov. Ron DeSantis, such as closing bars and restaurants, Barwick said.
DeSantis has been pressured by many Democrats to issue a shelter-in-place order, such as the lockdowns in California, New York and Illinois, to curtail the coronavirus pandemic.
The governor has resisted, saying recently: “Some people think that the governor should just be a dictator and just order everyone imprisoned in their homes. I don’t think that would be an effective approach, but it’s certainly not warranted in some areas of the state.”
It’s not known yet if all 67 Florida counties will ultimately have at least one COVID-19 infection. Residents hope that won’t happen.
Just recently, and for several days, 21 counties had zero COVID-19 infections.
But Washington County, in the Panhandle, just fell off the zero-infection list, reporting one infection.
So now there’s 20 counties with zero infections —for now.
Based on U.S. Census data, those 20 counties have higher levels of poverty and lower levels of college education compared to the South Florida epicenter counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
Here are the 20 counties and their populations: