Crossing County Lines in the Time of Coronavirus

By Dr. Rachel Pienta

Florida is a large state in population and in square miles.  In the time it takes to drive from the southernmost tip of Monroe County in the Keys to the Alabama state line in Escambia, a driver could depart from Jacksonville in Duval County and arrive in Washington, DC. 

The Sunshine State also has diverse geographical regions with distinct personalities. A Floridian who calls Liberty City in Miami-Dade County home is likely to have little in common with someone who lives in Bristol, the county seat of Liberty County in the Panhandle. The same can be said for someone who lives in Central Florida , say living in Winter Park versus someone who lives in interior town of Arcadia.

Coronavirus response in North Florida communities from the Big Bend to the Panhandle has been a study in contrasts among these counties and a world away from what counties like Palm Beach Beach, Miami-Dade, and Broward have experienced.   

Some North Florida counties and municipalities have responded with curfews, hired community mask makers, and supplied the populace with food for humans and their pets. Others have responded with “residents only” rules for county amenities or adopted a “business as usual” response citing the faltering economy as a reason to relax precautions. 

Coronavius deaths per county- counties in light red have not had a death yet as of May 6/Andrew Heneen / CC0

In Gadsden County, residents have been urged to wear masks by county order. The Gadsden County Board of Commissioners mandated, mid-April, that everyone wear a cloth face mask in public to avoid the spread of COVID-19. The board vote, cast in a virtual meeting, was unanimous. 

South of Tallahassee, Wakulla County started opening beaches to the public in the third week of April. The following weekend, few parking spots were available at county beaches and vehicles not parked in approved spaces were subject to citation. 

A drive west on the coastal highway to Franklin County offered a different story. By county order, boat ramps were closed to visitors in early April.  Access remained available for county residents and property owners. The county later made national headlines after Sheriff AJ “Tony” Smith ordered surveillance for a St. George Island vacation home when reports surfaced that a Georgia state senator, Bruce Thompson, had decided to drive down from Atlanta to self-quarantine in his personal vacation residence after testing positive for COVID-19. 

In Leon County, home of the state capitol, residents were put under curfew order after law enforcement responded to a number of late-night large street gatherings. 

A short drive north of Tallahassee into Georgia, cities like Thomasville beckon Florida residents with open salons offering haircuts and pedicures.  On the first day of Georgia’s “re-opening,” a Marion County woman drove 140 miles  to Thomasville– a story made for the evening news broadcast –  to have a “ladies’ day out” complete with “mani-pedis” and lunch in the historic shopping district. 

Florida lawyer Daniel Uhlfelder has been visiting Panhandle beaches dressed as the Grim Reaper to protest the coastal re-openings.  His efforts have been fodder for late night television –  with videos of his adventures covered by CNN and featured on Jimmy Fallon’s show as well as Saturday Night Live. 

One Panhandle county remained free of coronavirus cases for weeks. Liberty County, with fewer than 9,000 residents, remained the sole county in Florida with no reported cases for weeks. Then, after a handle of cases were reported a sudden spike in cases would occur.  An outbreak in the Liberty County Correctional Institution, an all-male facility, would quickly take the county’s cases from eight to sixty in early May. 

The start of Phase One in Governor DeSantis plan to re-open Florida was scheduled perfectly for North Florida residents eager to celebrate a Cinco de Mayo “holiday” on an actual “Taco Tuesday.” Area restaurants – with limited seating and many still trying to accommodate curbside takeout – were soon inundated with patrons and orders. One popular Tallahassee Mexican restaurant waved the white flag at 7 pm, saying “we cannot accommodate any additional orders this evening.”

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