Smartphone data shows America’s cautious comeback
By Reade Levinson
(Reuters) – Data from millions of mobile phones shows varying behavior across the United States in May as people responded to the loosening of stay-at-home orders, a Reuters analysis shows.
Americans returned to parks, restaurants and gas stations first. In most of the country, though, people continued to stay away from bars, fitness centers and religious institutions, which remain closed in many areas, according to the analysis of anonymized smartphone data from SafeGraph.
Visits to elementary and secondary schools and colleges were down nearly 80% compared to early March. But grocery and speciality food stores, where visits increased by 17% during peak panic buying in mid-March, had another, albeit smaller, bump in May as stay-at-home restrictions began lifting.
(For a data visualization of this story, visit https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/jznpnbdojpl/index.html)
Nationwide, foot traffic at bars and pubs in mid-May was 60% less than in the first week of March, before widespread stay-at-home orders took effect. However, in Alabama, visits to bars surged 11% above pre-lockdown levels after restaurants, bars and breweries were allowed to open on May 11.
In Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott loosened restrictions on retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls on May 1, millions of quarantine-weary people went out to eat, but a significant portion of the population remained cautious about dining out. Foot traffic to restaurants was down 20% in mid-May from early March levels, a rebound from its biggest drop of 54%.
Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., where the stay-at-home order remains in place until June 8, foot traffic to restaurants was down by 66%.
Visits to nature parks in mid-May were up by 21% in Wisconsin, where 34 state parks and forests reopened on May 1.
In Montana, where Governor Steve Bullock exempted outdoor recreation from his stay-at-home order, park visits increased by 34% in April, and in mid-May remained 22% higher than pre-shutdown levels.
But in Arizona and in Utah, where national parks including Grand Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands were closed, park visits remained 23% and 26% lower, respectively, than in the first week of March.
Two aspects of life remained very much the same nationwide: Americans were filling up on gasoline, and kids were still home from school.
Visits to gas stations were up 19% nationally in mid-May, compared to the first week of March.
Meanwhile, most schools across the country remained closed. Foot traffic to elementary, middle and high schools and to colleges and universities across the United States dropped by 88% in mid-March and remained down by 77% in mid-May. The slight rise could be because high schools and colleges in some states, including Alabama, Texas and California, allowed modified graduation ceremonies in mid-May.
At the city level, the data shows how nuances in lifestyle and government policies can result in behavior that bucks national trends.
For example, in San Francisco, where ride-sharing apps rule the streets, visits to gas stations remained 22% below levels in the first week of March.
Foot traffic to bars began recovering in Houston and Brooklyn sooner than the rest of the country after some spots began offering takeout service in response to temporarily eased liquor laws.
In New York City, where restrictions on the number of customers allowed inside many grocery stores caused long lines, foot traffic to grocery and food stores remained 44% lower than in the first week of March.
Visits to religious institutions recovered slightly in St Louis after Missouri Governor Mike Parson allowed religious services to resume on May 4.
SafeGraph compiles anonymized location data from mobile devices and compares it with building footprints to measure traffic. Reuters compared foot traffic observed by SafeGraph from the first week of March through mid-May, adjusting for the fluctuating number of devices SafeGraph recorded each day.
(Reporting by Reade Levinson in London. Editing by Janet Roberts and Ryan McNeill.)
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