Amount of travel up in Okeechobee after COVID-19

OKEECHOBEE — According to data collected by the location tech company Unacast, despite calls for social distancing, residents in Okeechobee aren’t traveling any less than before the COVID-19 pandemic and, in some cases, may actually be traveling more.

Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
A sign at the Cliff J. Betts Recreation Area in Okeechobee warns residents to avoid large crowds.


Unacast is a data location start-up and newcomer to the growing business of using smartphones to track human movements and behavior. (If this story doesn’t make you think about all the data that smartphone in your pocket is sending off about you, then nothing will.) Unacast’s location data comes from hundreds of data supplier partners, many of whom are makers of apps that pull on GPS signals from cellphones. Normally, businesses pay Unacast or other, similar tech companies for access to their location data to make decisions on targeted marketing or to see footfall mapping for city, real estate and retail planning purposes.


But on the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, Unacast created a pro-bono tool using their technology that accurately measures how effective various social distancing strategies are performing in the real world. They’re calling it a “social distancing scoreboard” and say it’s designed to provide high-quality insights to public agencies, health care organizations, local governments and businesses to enable them to learn and act in the best interest of at-risk populations and the general public.


For the scoreboard they’re measuring the change in average distance traveled by those in each county. Unacast says comparing this data can show whether people have changed any of their normal behaviors in reaction to the virus, such as switching to a home office to reduce daily travel or avoiding non-essential trips to entertainment places or spare-time facilities.


Unacast grades each county on a letter scale of A through F. As of March 27, Okeechobee had an F on the social distancing scoreboard, with an increase of average distance traveled of 7%.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/OpenStreetMap
This map displays the grades of Unacast’s social distancing scoreboard visually. With blue representing an A grade and orange an F. Okeechobee was the lone F in south Florida according to data uploaded on March 27, surrounded by B’s, C’s and A’s.


One might consider the type of jobs located in Okeechobee as reason for the increased travel. Many of the jobs here are what has been deemed “essential.” Industries like health care, retail, agriculture and law enforcement are the leading methods of employment in the county and haven’t been shut down by the state. But that doesn’t explain how other counties with similar economies to Okeechobee such as Hendry and Glades were able to decrease their average distance traveled. Both Glades and Hendry had a grade of C on the social distancing scoreboard as of March 27 and have decreased their average distance traveled by over 20%. Overall, the state of Florida had an “A” grade for social distancing on March 27

Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
While dining rooms across the county have been shut down due to COVID-19, many local restaurants still offer delivery and take-out.


While individual cities and counties have issued shelter-in-place orders, a statewide order from Gov. Ron DeSantis seems unlikely. Gov. DeSantis points to data from the Florida Department of Health that shows that many areas of Florida have yet to be touched by the virus. Okeechobee is one of the 20 to counties in the state yet to have a confirmed case of COVID-19. But with the testing restrictions, especially early on in the crisis, and delay in getting results (with some not hearing their results for over a week and a half), some have warned not to put too much faith in those numbers.


“Right now the Department of Health is reporting that there’s only four cases in Highlands County, but I happen to know that the number is at least double that,” said emergency room doctor and Florida’s District 55 State Rep. Cary Pigman in an interview with the Lake Okeechobee News on March 25. “There’s just a delay. The bottom line is that this is in the community. I guarantee you it is in the heartland.”


“The only people we are able to test right now are the sickest of the sick,” continued Rep. Pigman. “So at this point we’re missing all those people who just have minor symptoms. But that doesn’t work me up that much, because I just assume if you have a cough, sore throat, runny nose and fever you probably have COVID-19. And for the overwhelming majority of folks it will just be a cold or no symptoms at all. If you’re having symptoms, stay away from folks and don’t congregate. If you have diabetes, chronic lung disease, heart disease or especially if you’re being treated for cancer, this is a risky time. This is a high-risk time.”


Even with the probable undercount of infected people in the state, Rep. Pigman indicated he agrees with Gov. DeSantis against issuing a statewide lockdown, saying that people still need to work.


You can check out Unacast’s social distancing scoreboard online at unacast.com/covid19/social-distancing-scoreboard.

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