A food bank in Corpus Christi, Texas, one of the areas where unemployment has shot up, even as the number of virus cases has remained relatively low.Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

In Corpus Christi, Texas, many people strain to name anyone infected with the coronavirus. In east central Wisconsin, members of the Y.M.C.A. express frustration with a distant health crisis that shut down the group’s community services. In western Colorado, the summer recreational season was canceled before it even started — again with little sign of the virus.

The coronavirus has killed more than 100,000 Americans and brought much of the economy to a grinding halt. Though all 50 states have begun to reopen against a bitter partisan backdrop, in many parts of the country the dual health and economic calamities are not playing out in parallel.

A New York Times analysis of coronavirus infections, official layoff notices and federal unemployment data highlights the sharp disconnect between extreme economic pain and limited health impact from the pandemic in many parts of the country. It is a split that presents local officials and businesses with difficult choices even after Friday’s encouraging jobs report suggested more of the country was returning to work.

Some business owners and workers in these communities have embraced reopening as urgently overdue because of their firsthand experiences. Many are angry or confused. Others plead for caution. But most agree the virus has not posed the local public health threat that so many were expecting — even while acknowledging that things could get worse and the numbers would likely already be higher with more testing.

The Times focused the analysis on 726 counties in 45 states that fall within the lower half of infection rates nationwide. Those counties have had fewer than 140 cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents and unemployment rates over 12 percent in April, the latest month for which official county data is available. (By contrast, New York City has had 2,483 cases per 100,000 residents.)

Four of the counties where residents are wrestling with the disconnect are in Colorado, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin. Largely out of the spotlight, they have not had overwhelmed morgues, or piles of body bags in hospitals, or dozens of deaths linked to a single nursing home. In these four counties, there has been mostly waiting.

“In the first two weeks when they said this was coming, I was like, ‘Let’s all stay in, hunker down, and if we all do this, that can help while we figure out what is going on,’” said Stephanie Anderson, a real estate agent in Satellite Beach, Fla.

But since “places here aren’t producing mass death,” she said, “don’t tell me I can’t open my business in a responsible manner.”


Nueces County, Texas

‘Scratching Their Heads’

Population

Cases

Deaths

Unemployment

362,294

280

3

15.8%


Texas counties where coronavirus cases are above or below the national average, compared with how much unemployment has increased in those places:





Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized by each

county’s population

Percentiles of the national average


Note: Data are the number of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases per capita in relation to the national average and the change from February to April of county unemployment rates. April figures, the most recent month for which county-level data is available, initial estimates. Case counts are through Wednesday and may be lower than actual infection rates because of incomplete testing.·Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics (unemployment); Census Bureau (population); New York Times reporting of data based on reports by states and counties (coronavirus cases).

In Corpus Christi, the oil and gas and vacation town on the southeastern coast of Texas, it can be tough to find people who have experienced the coronavirus’s devastation, or even know someone who has. But people hit with job losses or business closures? They are everywhere.

Theresa Thompson has been furloughed from her position as a catering and events manager at a Holiday Inn. Richard Lomax has seen sales fall by more than 90 percent at the two restaurants his family owns. Brett Oetting, chief executive of the tourism office, has been working with countless businesses struggling to navigate the economic collapse.

None of them knows anyone local who has been sickened by the virus.

In early March, things were as busy as ever in Corpus Christi and across Nueces County. But then fears of the coming virus hit and nearly everything came to an abrupt halt. The beaches cleared. The oil rigs idled. The hotels emptied.

“For a very long time, everyone in the business community was scratching their heads,” said Mr. Lomax, whose family operates Water Street Oyster Bar and Executive Surf Club. Together they furloughed about 150 of their 200 employees.

“You look around, there is beautiful weather and the beaches are empty and you don’t know anyone who has it,” he said. “That is hard — to keep that disciplined mind-set.”

It also seemed “arbitrary,” he said, that people were allowed to pile into grocery stores but not other businesses.

“You just want to help and want to not be part of the problem as well,” he said. “It is an awkward series of emotions. For us and our friends, it started to get existential.”

Corpus Christi remained something of a ghost town into April, but traffic has picked up since Texas began reopening.



Recent high school graduates on a graduation trip to Corpus Christi.Photographs by Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times




A Corpus Christi oil refinery.



A temperature check outside a beef-processing plant.



People clean fish at Billings Bait & Tackle.


Cleaning fish at Billings Bait & Tackle.




Theresa Thompson, a furloughed hotel worker, at Whitecap Beach.



Volunteers at the Coastal Bend Food Bank in Corpus Christi.


Confirmed infections have also inevitably risen as testing has increased, with many of the positive tests connected to a meat-processing plant. The numbers remain relatively low, but with a contagion that has defied prediction, the increase has unsettled some and even raised questions about the wisdom of reopening so quickly.

“It has made a lot of us take a pause and say, ‘What do we do if we are the next outbreak?’” said Mr. Oetting, head of Visit Corpus Christi.


Brevard County, Fla.

‘Open for Tourists’

Population

Cases

Deaths

Unemployment

601,942

428

13

12.9%


Florida counties where coronavirus cases are above or below the national average, compared with how much unemployment has increased in those places:





Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized by each

county’s population

Percentiles of the national average


Note: Data are the number of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases per capita in relation to the national average and the change from February to April of county unemployment rates. April figures, the most recent month for which county-level data is available, initial estimates. Case counts are through Wednesday and may be lower than actual infection rates because of incomplete testing.·Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics (unemployment); Census Bureau (population); New York Times reporting of data based on reports by states and counties (coronavirus cases).

Brevard County, Fla., touts itself as the only place in the country to watch a space launch from the beach. When the first manned launch since the end of the shuttle program blasted off last Saturday, tens of thousands did just that.

The event helped announce to the world that Florida’s Space Coast was reopening for business. For many residents, the moment was late in coming.

“It’s been a nightmare, to be honest,” said Puneet Kapur, who has managed the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Palm Bay for 11 years.

The hotel went down to 10 percent occupancy from 95 percent during the peak of spring break, Mr. Kapur said. During the worst of it, he laid off about two-thirds of his staff.

He has since rehired some of them and says he is staying positive: “Our county is open for tourists.”



Watching the SpaceX rocket launch at Space View Park in Titusville on May 30.Photographs by Eve Edelheit for The New York Times




Crowds on the A. Max Brewer Bridge after the launch.



Capt. John W. Murray, chief executive of the Canaveral Port Authority, at the new cruise terminal.



Katerina Nencini looks up at her daughter, Nicole, as they wait for the SpaceX rocket launch at Port Canaveral.


Katerina Nencini and her toddler, Nicole, waiting for the launch.




Alex Litras, the owner of Café Margaux.



Back out in the water in Cocoa Beach.


Lynda L. Weatherman, president of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, said many were hoping the space launch had provided “a little shot in the arm” to the economy.

Alex Litras, owner of Café Margaux, a French seafood and steak restaurant a few blocks from the water, has seen an improvement but is proceeding cautiously to avoid becoming a “weak link” in staving off the virus. Under restrictions, he can seat up to 50 percent capacity; tables with room for four or more diners often have just two.

“We are turning guests away simply because there are not enough tables in the dining room,” he said. “We are far from anywhere we were before. If we were able to add more volume, that opportunity is there.”

Ms. Anderson, the real estate agent in Satellite Beach, said the relatively low number of infections in the area — even as people began to venture out more — gave her confidence that they were on the right track.

She has created a Facebook group focused on the pandemic. It is called “REOPEN BREVARD COUNTY!”


Outagamie County, Wis.

‘Need a Sense of Normalcy’

Population

Cases

Deaths

Unemployment

187,885

232

8

14.1%


Wisconsin counties where coronavirus cases are above or below the national average, compared with how much unemployment has increased in those places:





Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized by each

county’s population

Percentiles of the national average


Note: Data are the number of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases per capita in relation to the national average and the change from February to April of county unemployment rates. April figures, the most recent month for which county-level data is available, initial estimates. Case counts are through Wednesday and may be lower than actual infection rates because of incomplete testing.·Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics (unemployment); Census Bureau (population); New York Times reporting of data based on reports by states and counties (coronavirus cases).

Bill Breider, who runs five Y.M.C.A. centers in east central Wisconsin, described having to shutter them for most of March, April and May as “heartbreaking” and “agonizing.”

About one in five people across the region belongs to the organization, which provides a “second home” for older residents, day care for the children of working parents, and everyday programming like swim lessons and fitness training.

The centers also provide more than 1,500 full- and part-time jobs.

“We have had to make some gut-wrenching decisions around furloughs and layoffs, coupled with how to keep employees safe,” said Mr. Breider, the chief executive of the Y.M.C.A. of the Fox Cities, which has four of its five centers in Outagamie County.

An organization built on service suddenly could not serve — even as the region experienced relatively few confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The centers reopened with restrictions late last month. Before that, only day care services for children of essential workers had been running.

The virus-versus-economy dynamic created a “tug back and forth as to what is the right thing to do,” Mr. Breider said. “It is a difficult time because I think there is a feeling like we need to open back up, we need a sense of normalcy.”



A member working out at the Y.M.C.A. in Appleton.Photographs by Lauren Justice for The New York Times




The Appleton center and four others in the area reopened with restrictions late last month.



The Y.M.C.A.s were closed because they were categorized as fitness centers, though they also provide many other services.



Businesses have opened in Appleton after stay-at-home orders were lifted.


Businesses have been reopening since stay-at-home orders were lifted.




Coronavirus cases in the county have doubled in recent weeks, but the spread remains limited.



When weeks passed and the virus did not hit the way people had expected, “patience began to wear,” a Y.M.C.A. board member said.


The Fox Cities, 19 communities along the Fox River in Outagamie and two neighboring counties, have faced a persistent risk that the virus would migrate from Green Bay or Milwaukee, which both have far more cases. But while the number of cases in Outagamie has doubled in recent weeks, the spread remains limited.

Andy Rossmeissl, who serves on the Y.M.C.A. board and has been a member since childhood, said its absence had been much discussed in the community during the lockdown. Residents, by and large, were quite understanding in the first weeks, he said, but then grew restless.

“As it became more and more apparent that the hospitals were not being overrun, and that our support structure in our community was able to keep up, patience began to wear,” he said.

What was particularly difficult, he said, was that the organization had not gotten to decide when or whether to close, but had been required to do so under the governor’s orders, which categorized it as a fitness center.

“In this community, it is so much more,” Mr. Rossmeissl said.


Mesa County, Colo.

‘Practically Zero Disease’

Population

Cases

Deaths

Unemployment

154,210

55

0

12.6%


Colorado counties where coronavirus cases are above or below the national average, compared with how much unemployment has increased in those places:





Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher unemployment

increase

Circles are sized

by each county’s

population

Percentiles of the national average

Higher

unemployment

increase

Circles are sized by each

county’s population

Percentiles of the national average


Note: Data are the number of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases per capita in relation to the national average and the change from February to April of county unemployment rates. April figures, the most recent month for which county-level data is available, initial estimates. Case counts are through Wednesday and may be lower than actual infection rates because of incomplete testing.·Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics (unemployment); Census Bureau (population); New York Times reporting of data based on reports by states and counties (coronavirus cases).

Far from Denver, pushed up against the Utah border, Mesa County is known for its stunning flat-topped mountains and abundant outdoor activities. Residents are proud of their record so far on the coronavirus — just 55 known cases, and nearly all have already recovered — but some worry about the price the county has paid.

The largest country music festival in Colorado has been canceled. So has the Junior College Baseball World Series. Despite getting state permission to open some businesses ahead of the rest of Colorado, many in the county are struggling — and patience is thinning.

“Obviously we don’t want to let it get away from us, we don’t want to ruin a good thing, but did it really have to be this level of shutdown?” said Doug Simons, a third-generation owner of Enstrom Candies, which has five retail stores that have remained open as essential businesses.

“There was a real reluctance from our leaders to let things open back up, even though we had practically zero disease in our community,” he said. “I thought: ‘What the heck is going on? We don’t have any cases here and we’re being told to shut down like it’s New York City.’”

Weekends that used to draw thousands and cause hotels to sell out have passed by quietly. Graduation last month from Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, the county’s biggest city, was held online.

“It feels a little bit strange here because the weather is nice and everyone can still go out and hike and mountain bike and do all of the naturally socially distanced activities that we love to enjoy,” said Amanda Michelsen, director of sales at the Courtyard and Residence Inn, which had furloughed about three-quarters of its 80-person staff.


People wakeboard at the Imondi Wake Zone in Fruita, Colo.


Wakeboarding at the Imondi Wake Zone in Fruita, Colo.Photographs by Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times




Doug and Jamee Simons, owners of Enstrom Candies.



A sparsely populated downtown Grand Junction.



Empty porta-potties next to the field that was going to host the now-canceled Country Jam.


Empty porta-potties next to the field where the Country Jam was to be held.




The chef Josh Niernberg at his restaurant Bin707 Foodbar.



“We’ll be able to stay open for now,” Mr. Niernberg said of Bin 707, but he was cautious about whether it was sustainable.


Mesa County has suffered before. When the Great Recession struck a decade ago, the region was overly dependent on oil and gas extraction. Recovery was slow, but local groups worked to diversify the economy, in part by focusing on tourism. The efforts contributed to “three really good years of growth,” said Robin Brown, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

Josh Niernberg’s restaurant, Bin 707 Foodbar, was among the successes. In February, he was a semifinalist for a James Beard award. But recently, he has been able to keep paying his employees only by borrowing through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and by shifting some of them to a second restaurant he owns.

“We’ll be able to stay open for now, but we don’t have the customer base we foresee at this time of year and I don’t see it coming any time soon,” he said.

Angela Padalecki, executive director of the Grand Junction Regional Airport, equates the sadness and anger among residents with stages of grief.

“We’re grieving the loss of those good times,” she said.

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