COVID-19, the novel coronavirus has caused Emerald Coast visitors to leave and residents to self isolate and take shelter in their homes.

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to the Northwest Florida Daily News or the Panama City News Herald .

DESTIN — It should be fun to zoom through Destin on U.S. Highway 98, careening past construction barrels with no workers in sight, particularly on a beautiful day in the middle of March with spring break in full swing.

And it ought to be great to motor down County Road 30A at a reasonable clip, enjoying the view without worrying whether a bikini-clad college student is going to suddenly step into the roadway.

RELATED: COVID-19 RESTAURANT GUIDE: Restaurants in Destin, FWB, South Walton offering delivery, takeout

But it’s not fun. It’s depressing and creepy. COVID-19 has made it that way.

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus has caused Emerald Coast visitors to leave and residents to self isolate and take shelter in their homes.

The vast majority of spring breakers have departed. A convenience store worker at the always busy Tom Thumb at the intersection of U.S. 98 and U.S. 331 confirmed that all too obvious fact Thursday.

Gone too, seemingly are many of the Florida Department of Transportation workers who residents and tourists alike have been cussing for what seems forever, as work to widen 98 through Destin plods frustratingly forward. FDOT is taking necessary precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19, agency spokesman Ian Satter said.

A lot of other folks have gone missing in Destin, South Walton and South Okaloosa County as well.

Those are the men and women who work the thousands of jobs that the tourism industry has provided for this region, and the many residents who live and work in the area and share the fruits of its commerce with the visitors.

Surreal is a word you hear a lot these days.

RELATED: COVID-19 RESTAURANT GUIDE: Crestview area restaurants open for delivery or takeout

“Driving around Destin is eerie and feels like you’re in a science fiction movie. It looks like a neutron bomb went off,” said local financial adviser Tim Krueger. “The buildings are there but they are devoid of humans.

”I talked to a 100-year-old client the other day and he said he’d never seen anything like this,“ Krueger continued. ”Now, that’s perspective.“

Spring is typically one of the busiest times for Destin and South Walton, and this year between 90 and 95 percent of the rental units are empty, said Shane Moody, the president and CEO of the Destin Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s sad to sit here and look outside,” Moody said. “There’s no traffic.”

Destin has closed its beaches and bars, and its restaurants are operating under strict food service requirements. Moody said that while some restaurant owners have opted to provide take out, others have just shut down.

RELATED: CORONAVIRUS - READER PHOTOS: See how locals in Northwest Florida are dealing with coronavirus

Businesses like The Track in Destin or Wild Willies Adventure Zone on Okaloosa Island that cater to the young crowd by providing go-cart rides and arcade amusements also appear shut down for now.

The huge Silver Sands Outlet in South Walton was empty Thursday, and there wasn’t a single vehicle sitting in its vast parking lot.

Destin Commons, another retail giant, was only slightly busier than Silver Sands. The automobiles in its lot were either workers preparing take out food orders or the customers who had come to pick them up.

“We’re losing a tremendous amount of business at this time,” Moody said. “We’re losing a tremendous amount of money and a tremendous amount of tax dollars for the county and cities to use on infrastructure.”

The beach communities, though, are not the only ones suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cities from Fort Walton Beach, to Niceville/Valparaiso and Crestview, along with those in DeFuniak Springs and Freeport, are also feeling the pinch. All are also facing bar closures, restaurant restrictions and an economic slowdown.

“Usually the streets are pretty busy,” David Armstrong, the owner of the still open Creative Salon in DeFuniak Springs said as he looked out across a decidedly dead downtown. “We typically get a pretty good, decent flow of traffic.”

Most north county restaurants seemed resolved to give the take-out ordering concept a go. The popular Hideaway Pizza on Main street in Crestview had a sign posted on its door notifying customers curbside orders were being taken.

Region wide, fast food restaurants seem to be open for drive-through service only.

Just down Main Street from Hideaway Pizza, at Hub City Smoke House and Grill, business was fairly booming. Cars were spilling out of the restaurant parking lot and into the road as customers waited to pick up food orders.

“We’re operating at about 50 to 60 percent. We’re fortunate we have a good following and good customers that support us no matter what,” said owner Mike Carroll.

Carroll and his 37 employees are also taking advantage of the restaurant closure to tidy up and do some painting. Things that couldn’t be done before at a business that is open seven days a week.

Among the tasks was cleaning 1,888 shot glasses displayed in one room of the restaurant.

“I can keep the employees gainfully employed for a period of time, but not indefinitely,” Carroll said. “We’re holding on until we can get back on track and do what Americans do best, get capitalism going again.”

One of Crestview’s largest employers, the Okaloosa County Courthouse, has virtually shut down access to the public, as have the other courthouse facilities within Florida’s First Judicial Circuit.

Lindsay Strickland, a customer service employee for the Clerk of Courts Office, said technology has proven valuable in processing courthouse paperwork during this time.

“It has been pretty quiet, but we’re able to use our online services. People can still pay tickets and child support,” Strickland said. “It is running effectively. I am actually pleasantly surprised.”

Like parks and other open spaces across the Emerald Coast, Twin Lakes Park in Crestvew offered refuge for some few who found a need to get out of the house.

Though the ducks and geese pretty much had the run of the place, there were a few people getting some exercise on a walking path, children playing in areas designated for that purpose and friends visiting over picnic table lunches.

“It’s the only open thing,” said park visitor John Bruneau.

In Dorcas, a tiny Okaloosa community between Crestview and DeFuniak Springs, the Emerald Coast Zoo also relies on spring tourists for business.

“This is supposed to be our busiest time of the year. It’s spring break, the kids are out of school and the weather is perfect. We should have 600 visitors. But look around ....”

There were people strolling about the zoo early Thursday afternoon, but there weren’t 100 on the property, much less 600.

“The good news is we sold our house to buy this, so we don’t owe anything on it,” de Ridder said. “I think we’ll be all right. We just need to cover feed and power and water.”

Feed though, even with corporate partners like Publix and Walmart helping out, isn’t cheap when you’re feeding lots of animals, including what de Ridder says are the two largest white Bengal tigers in the world.

Ever the optimist, de Ridder said he thinks the Emerald Coast Zoo might offer a compelling sanctuary for those wanting out of the house as COVID-19 rages.

“We are still open and there’s plenty of room for social distancing. We even have a boa constrictor that is exactly six feet long and we’ll use it to measure space between people,” he said with a laugh. “And what a home schooling opportunity for parents. On science day, teach them about animals.”

Caitlin Madaras, who had admittedly been forced by current events into a home-schooling gig, obviously saw the wisdom of de Ridder’s concept.

“They had science today,” she said as she and a group of nine were leaving the zoo grounds. “We came to see the animals.”