As of midday Thursday, 90% of the nation — that’s roughly 300 million citizens — was under either a state- or city-mandated shelter-in-place order in an effort to halt the spread of novel coronavirus.
So what’s life like for the other 10%? Are some Americans still chatting at the local barbershop, meeting for post-work happy hours and gathering for backyard barbecues?
Not so much. The reality is a complicated and even conflicted mix of respect for a deadly pathogen, concern over its economic implications, and a desire to maintain a sense of American independence in the face of a collective tragedy.
Many people are no longer shaking hands or crowding into stores, but they are still going shopping, buying cars and some are even heading out to work each day.
“We’re doing what we would do for the flu, with older people sheltering in place and the rest of us taking the best care we can,” says Brian Joens, whose Iowa City eatery, Joensy’s, is doing a brisk take-out business of its fabled pork tenderloin.
“But let’s be honest, what country do we live in?” says Joens. “It’s the USA, which is freedom, freedom to choose. When we get notes from the government saying do this or do that, it feels like that’s not what this country is built on. People should be smart, and you live with your choices.”
Iowa and four other states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Arkansas — as yet have no state-wide orders. Seven states — Wyoming, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama and South Carolina — have at least one city with shelter-in-place rules. As of now, 38 states have full lock-down orders from the top.
Initial skepticism about whether social distancing orders are needed to combat the virus is fading fast. On Wednesday, 80% of Americans were under a full or partial lockdown. By Thursday, the figure grew to 90% after Florida and Georgia added state mandates.
USA TODAY reached out to residents in eight states without specific lockdown orders to get a sense of how people are confronting the growing coronavirus outbreak.
In every case, there was a clear understanding of the lethal nature of COVID-19, which to date has infected nearly 230,000 Americans and killed 5,648, from hero physicians to celebrated artists such as jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis.
But many also were uneasy with state-ordered health directives, arguing that residents should make smart decisions for themselves. And some blamed the media for overplaying a pandemic that is expected to threaten lives across the globe for much of 2020.
“I’m looking out the window of my dealership, and people are everywhere, it’s unbelievable,” says Chris Mayes, who owns Big Red Kia and Oklahoma Motorcars along the Mile of Cars commercial strip in Norman. “We’re not on lockdown here.”
At his Big Red Kia, which remains open, Mayes makes sure salespeople stay six feet away from customers. With nearly 900 positive virus cases, and 34 deaths, Oklahoma’s numbers are not among the worst in the nation. But Mayes is worried those statistics will cause some to be complacent.
“When I see images from other U.S. cities, where there’s just no one in the streets, very few cars out, that is the total opposite of what we’re seeing here,” he says, adding that he rarely strays from his showroom. “And I’m absolutely worried about it.”
In some states, residents predict coronavirus 'will blow over'
Over in the northwestern corner of Alabama near the Tennessee border, Andrew Sorrell says the streets of Florence are shockingly busy. He attributes that to a mix of optimism and fierce individualism.Still, he says, residents have stopped greeting each other without a handshake or hug for the time being.
“I think most people expect this will blow over, although when it does it will have implications we don’t understand yet,” says Sorrell, a Republican state representative out of Muscle Shoals and the co-owner of Gold, Guns and Guitars, two pawn shops doing a huge business in gun sales. “When will we shake hands again?”
Sorrell says that despite having no state-wide order to stay home, many of his constituents are doing just that, especially the elderly. His own parents declined to invite his in-laws over to live-stream a church service the other day.
But others, he says, claim the dangers are being hyped by the media. He himself isn’t for a state-wide mandate but rather more personal responsibility.
“I have liberty concerns with a shelter in place order,” Sorrell says. “People just need to be more responsible for themselves with what they’re doing, where they’re going.”
For some who live in states with no gubernatorial edict on COVID-19 behavior, the anger isn’t toward a government institution that might curtail their rights but rather at the virus itself.
“I want to be safe but I don’t like the virus dictating what I can and can’t do,” says Tessa Moberg, who runs Wolf Pup Daycare in Watford City, a small town of 6,500 in the western, oil-field-rich part of North Dakota. The state so far has 150 or so coronavirus cases and three deaths.
Normally, Moberg’s business oversees more than 200 children; currently, her skeleton staff is looking after nine, mostly the kids of essential workers who still head to their jobs. While she has fears about the virus, she also claims her immune system is “through the roof” after years of working with young children.
Moberg says she cut back her staff "with my heels dug in deep, and though I miss those kids so much I do understand what’s going on even if I don’t like it." Moberg admits that when she goes out to shop “it’s just weird now, you don’t want to talk or even breathe, even if it’s desolate out here.”
In the arid, rock- and mountain-studded state of Utah, which has only 37 people per square mile, the state’s patchwork array of orders is the result of a range of factors, including a Western rugged individualist mentality and many isolated rural counties, residents say.
Instead of issuing a state-wide COVID-19 order to shelter in place, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert last week urged citizens to “Stay Safe, Stay Home,” and offered guidance on closing public facilities and restricting food service businesses to take-out only.
So far, of the 13 state health departments that oversee Utah’s 29 counties, only three have urged their counties to go beyond the governor’s broad directives, says Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which represents 249 Utah cities.
“Everyone sees what’s happening out there in the world, but how you respond really depends on where you live,” says Diehl, noting the inherent differences between Utah tourist meccas such as the Summit County ski areas and Moab mountain biking region, and far more sparsely inhabited parts of the state. "Everyone seems to take a look at their own situation when it comes to health care, and makes a decision."
Local leaders take some precautions to stop coronavirus outbreak
Gail Terry lives in the classically rural frontier town of Cody, just east of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park and named after Western icon Buffalo Bill Cody.
Terry says that while only the tourism destination city of Jackson is under self-quarantine, people in Cody are taking coronavirus very seriously. Those who sell food limit the number of people coming in to shop, deliveries have stepped up, and cash donations to the local food bank she helps oversee, the Cody Cupboard, have increased as food has become more scarce.
“The data looks good for us right now,” says Terry, noting that there are 150 COVID-19 cases in the state and only one in her county. “We will keep doing what we need to on our own. But if the governor asked every one of us to shelter in place, I think people would. We watch the news, we see what’s going on.”
Many say regional reactions to COVID-19 have a lot to do with everything from the varied political views that exist across the nation to the hardships that some encounter annually because of geography.
"We are in tornado alley, so you can have a beautiful day and then a terrible storm, so we’re used to that for Arkansans," says Meg Matthews, deputy chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. "We’re a sturdy group of people, we take situation and make the best of it."
Matthews says that although there is no state-wide order to stay home, various departments are taking action as needed. State parks had started to see an influx of visitors from locals and those outside the state in the past week, leading to a few exceedingly crowded trails, which has since been closed.
"The feeling I get from most people is that we’re about a 6 out of 10 if a 10 is totally freaking out," says Matthews, whose state has more than 500 cases and eight deaths. "We are all taking precautions and being practical."
In American lore, there are perhaps few states with as fierce an independent streak as the Lone Star State of Texas. Born out of a history filled with clashes with other nations, indigenous peoples and each other, many Texans epitomize a do-it-yourself ethic that is a key ingredient in the American mythos.
Penny McBride was born and raised in the Texas Hill county town of Fredericksburg, which was settled 174 years ago by German immigrants who named it after Prince Frederick of Prussia.
There has so far been a conflicted response to coronavirus in a state that has no government mandate to shelter in place.
McBride, who runs the local chamber of commerce, says that while many businesses in the area are closed, including the Hill Country’s tourist-draw wineries, some retailers were eager to stay open while following health official recommendations for keeping customers apart and shelves sanitized.
“As the chamber, that’s made us the enforcement agency, so we’re working with different agencies now to understand some clarity,” she says, adding that a request recently made by the local hospital, Hill Country Memorial, for a shelter-in-place order for Gillespie County has so far not been acted on.
“There are 900 members of the chamber of commerce, and commerce means business, I understand that,” she says. “But if we crater our health care system, that’s an impact we just can’t take.”
McBride remains confident that despite continued debates over how to best tackle a crisis no one could anticipate, her fellow Texans’ will do the right thing even if government decrees aren’t issued.
“All the stereotypes are true, we are very independent people who like to think of ourselves as always doing things our own way,” says McBride. “But those German roots also mean we are tight-knit. So there’s the Texas maverick side, but also a part of us that will absolutely step up to take care of our own.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava