Are we suffering from social distancing fatigue? Data suggests so

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina could be suffering from social distancing fatigue, several sets of data suggest.

Numbers from three tech firms that use cellphones to track mobility trends all seem to indicate that people are moving around more frequently than in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

Brian Southwell, a senior research scientist at RTI International and an expert in human behavior, told CBS 17 News that it’s “quite likely” that some “regression to past habits” is taking place.

“It happens with all sorts of behavior,” he said. “I think it’s important to keep in mind that even so, people are still likely acting differently than at this time last year when they are out in those spaces. A lot more of us are wearing masks when we’re out than we were last August. 

“So we probably ought to keep that in mind when we’re looking at those numbers,” he added. “But I do think we’re going to see some degree of a sense of normal, some degree of regressing back to what their usual patterns were.”

One possible explanation: The time of the year, he said, citing research that found how it can influence people’s mindsets — a similar phenomenon to resolutions that are made every December and January.

“So what can happen is this time of year, the beginning of the new (school) year, people are looking ahead at changes, they’re looking to change what they’ve been doing and in doing that, they might be remembering past school years and kind of revert back to some of those patterns,” he said. “But this also could be a time when some new patterns could get set. So it might be a good time to actually reset and restart some of that messaging, some of those reminders, so that we put into place some new habits for the new school year, for example.”

In the most recent set of data, released Wednesday by research firm TOP Data, North Carolina ranks 29th nationally in its social distancing metric, gathered from collecting data from cellphones and comparing the current number of daily close human interactions lasting longer than 5 minutes with how many it tracked before the pandemic.

The firm found that the current amount of those interactions total 55.9 percent of that number before the pandemic, with the average person having 3.23 such interactions now compared to 5.78 last August.

Additionally, Google has been tracking mobility for months using anonymized cellphone data and comparing those figures to the pre-pandemic baseline.

In its update for the state from last week, the trends show North Carolinians are only half as likely to be home in July than they were in May but showed a significant climb in visits to retail and recreation sites. 

And their frequency of visiting grocery stores and pharmacies is only 2 percent below those levels before the coronavirus — and for much of July, people were visiting those stores at rates higher than before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, tech firm Unacast continues to grade North Carolina — and the entire United States — harshly for its social distancing. 

North Carolina was one of 36 states receiving a grade of F for its distancing efforts. The country as a whole also was given a failing grade and no state received higher than a D-plus.

The results weren’t much better at the county level — 18 of the 22 North Carolina counties in the CBS 17 viewing area also received Fs, including Wake, Durham, Orange and Cumberland counties.

Warren County had the highest grade, a C-minus. Northampton County received a D-plus, Edgecombe County had a D and Sampson County had a D-minus.

But in the spirit of the start of the new school year, there might still be time to bring those grades up.

“This is a time of change,” Southwell said. “I think it’s a time when a lot of people are weary and tired. Kind of looking ahead to a fresh start. Hopefully that fresh start can include safe behaviors in it as well.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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