On Thursday, The New York Times published a set of maps to show where Americans are really turning the idea of “social distancing” into a reduction in travel. The first of these maps shows that there are counties even within states in the West and Midwest where stay-at-home orders haven’t been all that effective when it comes to reducing miles traveled. But then again, those are rural counties. When people are ordered to stay at home except for vital services, like food, and the longest trips people make are already the weekly jaunt to a grocery store that may be 30 miles away, it’s not surprising that the distance traveled hasn’t been all that greatly reduced. In some of the most rural western counties, the distances recorded may even be people moving around their own properties when it comes to those involved in agriculture.
But the second map in the Times set paints a blood-red swatch across the South, not in terms of their vote, but in terms of how far people are traveling on a raw miles basis. In much of the nation, even in the most rural portions of the North and West, the average distance traveled is less than two miles a day. In other counties, the distance traveled has fallen below two miles as social distancing has been implemented. But in most of the South—and not just the rural South—the average distance traveled is still above two miles. Americans in the South are getting out, getting in their cars, and traveling miles. Every day.
There are a number of reasons that this is happening. First, the areas in red correspond fairly well to areas where a stay-at-home order has only recently gone into effect, or where there is still no statewide order. There are even states on this map, such as Florida, where at first glance the red “travel counties” do seem to align with the more Republican areas of the state.
It is certainly not hard to find a resemblance between the areas that are red on the Times map and those that are the same color on the 2016 presidential map, especially when counties in stay-at-home states are trimmed away.
But there’s another reason that the red states are also “red states” when it comes to their travel distance. As former Obama White House official Christopher Hale points out, these maps correspond closely to areas that are “food deserts,” where the nearest grocery story requires making an extended trip. “Food deserts” is a term that is often applied to urban neighborhoods where good nutrition is outside of walking range, but these are counties where it takes an extended auto trip to find any kind of nutrition, even bad nutrition. Why? The simple answer is Walmart. These areas represent locations where big box retailers like Walmart have annihilated local grocers, and where the quest for an apple or a box of Pop-Tarts means crossing the county to a store that also sells tires, televisions, and potting soil.
It’s also not at all coincidental that the states with the most Fox News viewers are those likely to have Republican governors, and those least likely to have stay-at-home orders, and those most likely to live in food deserts. It’s all of a piece: poor, rural, conservative, and forced to travel even in the midst of a pandemic because that’s the system they’ve been left with.
And that’s just the start of it. As The Atlantic makes clear, COVID-19 may have so far caused the greatest damage in the Northeast, but it’s unlikely to stay that way. Already, about a tenth of all deaths have come from the Gulf Coast states, and those states are still racing up the ramp of infection, even as states that have been under strict social distancing for days or weeks are beginning to bend the curve on local cases. The South, both cities and rural areas, looks set to be the next epicenter of the outbreak in America. But in the South, there’s a whole new face on the death and destruction—a younger face.
“The numbers emerging seem to indicate that more young people in the South are dying from COVID-19. Although the majority of coronavirus-related deaths in Louisiana are still among victims over 70 years old, 43 percent of all reported deaths have been people under 70. In Georgia, people under 70 make up 49 percent of reported deaths. By comparison, people under 70 account for only 20 percent of deaths in Colorado.”
If “under 70” doesn’t sound that young, what the numbers show is that Southerners from 40 to 60 are more than twice as likely to die, so far, than people of the same age in other parts of the nation. The prevalence of younger people in the death count isn’t just unique in the United States—it’s unique in the world.
Working against existing health studies of the region, the Atlantic article relies on a Kaiser Family Foundation study for a sense of why the U.S. Southern states are such an outlier. The answer appears to be underlying conditions, such as diabetes and heart issues, that put more people at risk. That issue is likely also connected to the Walmart-created food deserts where local produce is less available than drive-thru burgers and home-delivered pizza. The Kaiser study includes its own set of maps that have an eerie overlap with those of the Times article—in other words, the areas where people are most vulnerable are the same areas where people are, by choice and by force, engaged in the worst practices.
The combination is setting the South up for a disaster beyond imagining, and it’s one that won’t be neatly limited to those who partied on the beach or those who nod along when Rush Limbaugh calls COVID-19 “ordinary flu.” It’s going to be a multistate, cross-generational slaughter that affects the region for decades to come.
But it can still be made better if people get good advice, accurate information, and government action now.