Lee Beaudrot –
As large cities are ravaged by COVID-19, the effects readily apparent to those who live there, the true battleground over the dangers of the pandemic and how to deal with them lies in America’s small towns and rural communities. I live in one such area and my experiences and observations lead me to believe that people are disinclined to follow safety guidelines if the danger to them is not immediately present.
Clay County is a fairly insignificant county, a fraction of the size and population of nearby Duval County which covers the city of Jacksonville, and its only feature of note being a prominent naval base which used to be the headquarters of the Blue Angels (the Navy’s show airsquad). It got its name from Henry Clay, the fierce political rival of Andrew Jackson, who insulted Jackson so publicly over everything from his policies to his marriage that Jackson blamed him for the death of his wife. Residents resented constantly being lumped in with the city and having their needs ignored, so the name was just another way of biting back at their perceived enemy.
That tells you all you really need to know about the people who live here. They are obstinate and fiercely protective of their freedom.
My grandfather once told me that the only way to get elected here is to be a registered member of the Republican Party and be at church on Sundays. I have never seen evidence to contradict that. Our county’s political diversity ultimately comes down to the different flavors of conservative, with representation of wealthy fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, working class republicans, and military GOP members. While Florida may still count as a swing state, Clay County is decidedly in the red with a vast majority of the people here voting for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
It takes a certain degree of entrenched feuding for a virus to cause political division, but here we are. As businesses are beginning to reopen across the state, despite the warnings from health experts that it will cause unnecessary suffering and death, we are seeing some of the highest daily contraction rates in the recorded span of this pandemic. Reading the news each day has become an exercise in restraining the urge to beat my head against a wall. Some people claim that the virus does not exist and that this is all some sort of liberal hoax, others refuse to wear masks because they don’t want to and nobody can make them, and a small but vocal contingent go out to protest the country’s current shutdown. With guns.
The resistance to safety measures that businesses are currently implementing speaks to an underlying lack of compassion. Service workers are doing everything they can to keep things going, and the people who treat them with disrespect and harass them for attempting to do their jobs betray the fact that they do not view them as equals. Because they have little to fear themselves, they do not care about the dangers that these workers face. I have seen countless social media posts and editorials that treat wearing a mask like an act of cowardice, one meme negatively comparing World War 2 soldiers with millennials who wear masks and sanitize surfaces. Somehow, dying in a pandemic is more valiant than taking proper precautions against an outbreak in these individuals’ minds.
I have tried to understand where these sentiments stem from, but at a certain point I always wind up angry. The big point that people keep making in favor of reopening is to prevent the economy from crashing further. I know the economy is important. But how can we put finances before human life? The economy can and will recover. Our amenities will come back in due time. What we cannot recover, are the people who have died from the government’s negligence. Clay County is Trump country, and while he fails these people, they defend him.