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00000177-b32b-d5f4-a5ff-bbfb6e660000Here is the information you need to know about COVID-19 in Northwest Florida. We will keep this post updated with the latest information from local, and statewide agencies. For inforamtion from Centers for Disease Control and prevention: cdc.gov/coronavirusFor updates on Florida cases of coronavirus, visit the FDOH dashboard.The COVID-19 call center is available at 24/7 at 1-866-779-6121

Coronavirus Social Distancing Tracked By Data Company

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According to the CDC, limiting face-to-face contact — otherwise known as social distancing — is the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

Federal, state and local governments have implemented guidelines and closures to limit non-essential travel. But ultimately, it’s up to individuals to practice social distancing. So how do we know they’re actually doing it?

Unacast, a data company that collects and provides cellphone location data, has set to answer that question with its Social Distancing Scoreboard. The scoreboard, which was released in late March, grades each state and county on its social distancing practices by tracking the distance traveled by residents starting on Feb. 28 and comparing it to daily changes. 

Jeanne Meyer, a spokesperson for Unacast, said they chose the Feb. 28 date as the control viable since it predates the social distancing guidelines that are now in place. 

While the map is updated daily, the state of Florida has an overall C- grade as of Wednesday afternoon. To get an A, places must show at least 70% decrease in average distance traveled. Anything less than 25% gets an F. Looking at more localized grades, Walton County has the highest with an overall grade of C, Okaloosa County has a C-, Santa Rosa County has a D-, and Escambia has a C-. 

Meyer said the map was designed by 25 data scientists over a long weekend and was shared as a “public awareness tool.” 

“It’s all in regards to stopping the pandemic,” she said. “We have a new tool coming out later this week to track the impact of businesses.” 

Since it was first released, the map has included metrics to better judge rural areas, where they started to see some anomalies, said Meyer. The map also has stricter guidelines since March 31 to further encourage flattening the curve. Originally, places had to show a 40% decrease in distance traveled to earn an A grade, now it’s set to 70%. 

Credit Unacast
Data from April 15 shows the social distancing grades of each Florida county.

The map is not an indicator of a potential spread of COVID-19, but just another way to show human behavior — just like any location data collector. Meyer said it’s a “forecast” to help policy leaders. 

Local governments have been ramping up online services to reduce in-person contact as well as providing regular COVID-19 updates through press releases and social media. One of the biggest changes, perhaps, was closing beach accesses to detract visitors and crowds. 

In Walton County, decisions such as closing not just the public beaches, but private beaches have drawn some criticism, and even a lawsuit (which was thrown out). Overall the county has worked together to reduce the spread, said Louis Svehla, public information manager.

“Nothing is easy right now,” he said. “And the board doesn’t take decisions like closing the beaches lightly. We only have 29 cases at this point and I think one of the reasons our numbers stay low is from support from our residents. We’re coming together by staying apart.”

Santa Rosa County Public Safety Director Brad Baker said he doesn’t believe the social distancing map provides a “fair picture” of the area, but he appreciates the promotion of social distancing. For its part, Santa Rosa County has shared its message using social media, print, TV and radio ads, and even the Nextdoor app, to name a few. 

“If the citizens don’t take it seriously, we have a problem,” he said. “We want to get that message across to citizens to do their part. We are following the guidance of the Department of Health, and we’ve definitely seen a difference — just talk to businesses.” 

Of course, that guidance could change. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced at his daily briefing that some pandemic regulations could be relaxed by the end of the month. Locally, Santa Rosa County Commissioners will be re-evaluating beach closures their regular meeting next week. So will Okaloosa. 

“We’re starting to have that conversation in conjunction with the Department of Health,” said Baker. “We’re not going to do anything reckless, but we are working on a plan – some kind of phased approach. This is a unique disaster that is ever-evolving.” 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.