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Amid coronavirus outbreak, Florida county pulls welcome mat

BRISTOL, Fla. – As Jessica Cherry watched traffic from her porch, she wondered with each passing vehicle if the coronavirus had made its way into her rural Florida Panhandle community.

For weeks, residents of Liberty County watched as infections spread, reaching into all of Florida's 67 counties but their own — the state's least populous — and worried about the devastating effect the coronavirus could have on their 8,300 people.

“When you see somebody drive by, your anxiety level goes up with each passing car because you think: They’re going somewhere and get contaminated and they’ll be bringing it to us,” Cherry said.

Cherry, a kindergarten teacher, has been working from home for nearly a month while schools are closed in an effort to limit the virus's spread. Like her neighbors, she has grown wary of outsiders, especially those who could be harboring an invisible enemy.

“At least with a hurricane, you know it’s coming,” she said.

It’s not that folks in Liberty County aren’t welcoming. In fact, the sign on the edge of Bristol — population not quite 1,000 — seems hospitable enough: “Welcome to our friendly city.”

Locals used to be glad for out-of-town traffic to stray off the road for provisions at the local market, or gas on the way to the beach or the state capital an hour away.

Townsfolk acknowledge there's really not much to see or do here, unless you like roaming pine-scented country roads, listening to birds chirp and watching traffic go by.

But the encroaching pandemic has strained their welcoming nature.

Some thought it odd when strangers began invading the local market to fill carts with toilet paper and other necessities. Who knew where they were from and what they could be spreading?

And history offered other reasons to be leery of outsiders. When Hurricane Michael devastated the region two years ago, Liberty County, like so many rural enclaves across the Florida Panhandle, was desperate for help. Outsiders came pouring in, including some that took advantage of the community’s trust and desperation.

One by one, nearby counties joined the list of confirmed cases. As of Thursday, the state reported more than 22,500 infected Floridians, and the number of deaths surpassed 610.

Leon County to the east, home to the state capital, had at least 150 cases. Gadsden to the north counted nearly 40, and Franklin to the south recorded its first case two weeks ago. Neighboring Calhoun County, just on the other side of the Apalachicola River, had five recorded cases.

“I thought that when Calhoun County got it, that was going to be it," said Matthias Schmarje, who lives in Liberty County but runs a restaurant in Blountstown, Calhoun County's biggest community.

But as the days passed, Liberty County remained without a confirmed infection, and residents prayed it could extend its luck — just maybe it could elude the global pandemic.

Liberty seemed a safe distance from the epicenter of the state's COVID-19 infections — about 500 miles from Broward and Miami-Dade, the counties with the bulk of the state's cases.

As cases spread, residents watched the number of virus-free counties on Florida's outbreak map dwindle.

“We had a running joke that we were in the state playoffs," he said. "Who’s going to be the last man standing in the state of Florida? ... We never win anything.”

In a bit of gallows humor, townsfolk gloated when Liberty County achieved that distinction.

Then worry crept back in.

“I don’t know how long it will be before we get a case, but I know it’s inevitable. Everybody’s going to have it everywhere," Schmarje said. "That’s kind of how a pandemic works, right?”

To help keep their streak alive, the local sewing club decided to swing into action.

Club membership swelled. Some of its newest members could barely thread a needle, but they lent a hand by bending pipe cleaners for nose clips on face masks. The group made scores of masks for friends and neighbors and hopes to produce hundreds more to donate to a hospital in Tallahassee.

Schmarje’s mother, Cathia, said she joined the effort “to keep your family safe, to keep your children safe, to keep your elderly safe.”

Some sewing club members anointed themselves the community mask police, turning a stern eye on those without masks and offering a covering to anyone who wanted one.

Cathia Schmarje said they'd been praying the virus would skip their county but acknowledged the inevitable.

“You can't be so naive to think that we're not ever going to see this in this community. Because it's coming," she said.

Their time ran out on Good Friday, of all days.

News spread quickly of the county's first coronavirus infection: a 56-year-old man who had been in contact with an infected person from across the river.

Then on Tuesday, the Liberty County Sheriff's Office said another county resident, a 29-year-old man, had come down with COVID-19.

For Cherry, the schoolteacher, concern shifted to what lies ahead.

“Of course, it makes us worry that there's more — that there's going to be more coming," she said. "And who's next?”

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Follow Bobby Caina Calvan on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BobbyCalvan

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak