Billy the Kid grave

Billy the Kid’s grave, not far from the highway, is the main tourist attraction in De Baca County.

COVID-19 has thoroughly infiltrated the United States in just four-plus months, seeping into nearly all the country’s many rural nooks and crannies.

But De Baca County in east-central New Mexico remains one of only 38 counties around the nation that is still free of the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fourteen states have one or two or three counties that have eluded COVID-19, though nine counties in western Nebraska and eight in Montana also have escaped the virus.

There are 3,141 counties in the U.S.

Half of the COVID-free counties fall in a north-south band that is barely 300 miles wide and touches on Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and North and South Dakota.

“These places are not seeing a lot of visitors, and these people probably are not traveling,” said Tracie Collins, dean of the College of Population Health at the University of New Mexico. “These places that have been insulated have likely been protected by limited travel in and out.’

She didn’t have any insights on De Baca County, but Gerald Cline did.

“We’re not really on the road to anywhere — and that’s the chamber of commerce guy saying that,” said Cline, executive director of the De Baca County/Fort Sumner Chamber of Commerce and a Fort Sumner village councilor. “It’s kind of a road less traveled.”

The highway traffic count for downtown Fort Sumner was 5,719 vehicles daily in 2016, which hasn’t changed much since and likely dropped with COVID-19, said state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Manon Arnett.

“Please note traffic is down 30 [percent] to 40 percent throughout the state due to COVID,” Arnett said.

Drivers from Lubbock are the most common through De Baca County. Santa Fe and Albuquerque drivers likely to get to Fort Sumner (population 910, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau figures) are those headed to Clovis and Portales — or Lubbock. Chances are, they aren’t stopping in Fort Sumner — and certainly not for long.

Cline said the Billy the Kid grave brings about 25 to 30 visitors a day to Fort Sumner — and it’s three miles off the highway.

“I wouldn’t think a whole lot of people are spending a night,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot to grab you to spend six hours here.”

Cline said some 300 to 400 of the census-estimated 1,781 residents in the county — “I guarantee you there are no more than 1,200 or 1,300” — have been tested for COVID-19 and none tested positive. He said the school system has about 300 students.

“Everybody who could get tested got tested,” he said. “Do I think nobody got [COVID-19]? No. They just weren’t out running around for a couple weeks.”

Self-isolation and 6 feet of distance are a matter of course in De Baca and, likely, the other zero-case counties.

“Our small population made social distancing easier,” Cline said. “We do not have large civic events. There wasn’t any stigma against masks or for it. Even at the church, it not hard to sit 6 feet apart and everybody can still be at church who wants to be at church.”

No coronavirus-free counties remain that are east of central Kansas. The last Eastern county with no COVID cases claimed its first Saturday: Doddridge County, W.Va.

All 38 counties have a combined population of 70,097, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Only three of the 38 are on freeways, remote stretches at that: Clark County, Idaho, on Interstate 15; Mineral County, Mont., on Interstate 90; and Prairie County, Mont., on Interstate 94.

The U.S. just passed 4 million reported virus cases in the remaining counties and county equivalents.

UNM’s Collins said COVID-19 surfaced in the American consciousness in February, became an active player in March and then the country hunkered down for a while. But that didn’t last.

“People got restless and came out in droves for the holidays [Memorial Day and Fourth of July],” Collins said. “We have relaxed the standard. The greatest increase [in terms of age group] is 20 to 29 years. Fortunately, they aren’t having the complications. The idea that you are immortal — you’re not.”

(8) comments

Not a Sheep

Bull.... most people do not wear a mask. I think the real reason there are no cases here is because we are a small community and if 1 person here tests positive then everyone will know therefore you can not hide it here like in big cities. We have travelers from new york florida california you name it they have been through Ft Sumner during this pandemic and no positives. If it were so deadly and spread so easy we would have it. I call bull...on Mr Clines comments and Zoe is full of it also, but sheep will be sheep!!!

Zoe Emiko

Zero cases testing positive for Covid19 isn't the same as zero people have been infected with Covid19. Approx 50& of all Covid19 cases are asymptomatic which makes knowing if anyone here has or does have the virus. I know the article said 300-400 people have been tested but I think that's a far reach. More like 250+ a few if you don't count those who have been tested multiple times because of their professions. With the exception of Allsups the businesses in the community have been fantastic about requiring people to wear masks and having hand sanitizer on hand. Sadly Allsups employees are really letting our community down with their 2nd shift & some on 3rd shift wearing their masks hanging down from their necks. That's also the place travelers through our little community usually stop.

I'm so proud of the majority of our community for wearing their masks when they're out & about and for social distancing.

As far as businesses being punished.. each of the restaurants has the ability to seat customers outdoors. Our people haven't stopped patronizing our restaurants - they're just getting it to go. The only businesses that are closed down are ones who were hardly ever open to begin with. We even had a new little food place open up recently so business can't be that bad. That our community has been so active in warding off this virus is why, if we have had or do have any cases it's not been many at all.

Mike Johnson

And yet, they are treated like the counties with massive surges, and the few restaurants there are still closed. Why are these citizens being punished????

Mark Stahl

Did you stop to think for a minute that might be the reason why?

Mike Johnson

So you think keeping restaurants closed is the solution to have no cases??? Why didn't that work in the rest of the state when they were closed for 3 months???? You should think before typing.

Zoe Emiko

The restaurants aren't closed.

Mike Johnson

Yes Zoe, they are, unless you like fast food to go or to eat outside in 100 degree heat, that is not a restaurant, that is McDonalds.

Zoe Emiko

No, they aren't closed. When a business, in this case restaurants, are "closed" there is no wiggle room. They're closed.. shut down.. not serving anyone anything.. period. A closed business has no revenue coming in. I think taking every precaution is why NM has one of the lowest totals for new cases in the nation. Just because I don't agree with you doesn't mean I haven't given thought before typing. I research first using actual data rather than going by the seat of my pants .. only then do I form my opinion. Mind you big box retailers only recently began requiring masks. We had 22 members of one of those all come down with Covid19 - 9 days later a rash of new cases popped up in the area around that store. That's only 1 example. Tell me again how there is no correlation.

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