We’re getting out more during Phase 2, but where are we going? Cellphone data can tell us

North Carolina news

FILE – A woman holds a cellphone in front of a laptop computer.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Restaurants and other retail shops across North Carolina saw a nearly 25 percent increase in the number of visitors on the first day of Phase Two of reopening, according to cellphone data collected by Google.

CBS17.com analyzed the tech giant’s most recent mobility report for the state to quantify how people’s behaviors have changed during the transition through the reopening process.

“People are out — going to the grocery store, perhaps — but maybe in a way that still is different than it was six months ago,” said Brian Southwell, a researcher at RTI International and a professor at both Duke and the University of North Carolina who studies human behavior and infectious diseases.

“There still is some nuance there in being a little bit more careful in terms of how close we are to each other,” he added. “So there does seem to be an interest on people’s parts … in trying to adjust here and to do some more and different things in Phase Two than we were in Phase One. But I still think that we’re seeing some degree of caution.”

Google has been collecting anonymized data from the cellphones of people who opt into the program via their device’s settings. It used location data from January and February to establish a baseline, then used that to measure changes in several areas during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the day-by-day data, traffic in the recreation and retail category in North Carolina was 25 percent below that baseline figure on May 21 — the final day of Phase One of reopening.

On the first day of Modified Phase Two — when, among other changes, restaurants were permitted to reopen their seating areas — that level had risen to just 19 percent below the baseline — for an increase of 24 percent.

From that point until May 29 — the last day for which data was available — the average percentage below the baseline in that category was 18 percent. From March 17 — the day when bars and restaurants were closed — until May 21, that average was 30 percent.

The data also show North Carolinians aren’t staying home as frequently on the weekends as they were before the reopening process began.

The increase from the baseline at residences has averaged just 5.6 percent during the three weekends since the move to Phase One. That average was at 10.2 percent during the four weekends in April.

“For me, we haven’t gone back to that earlier normal,” Southwell said. “I think that’s important to keep in mind. We certainly haven’t seen everybody acting at the same level as was perhaps the case in April. So there’s been some adjustment there, but I also think people are trying to find their way and I think that some of what you might see is maybe a little greater increase in mobility but more caution in some spaces than you would have had.”

In another interesting finding, grocery stores and pharmacies saw an 11 percent increase from that baseline on May 9 — the first full day of Phase One. That has since leveled off closer to the pre-pandemic level, at 1 percent below that baseline in the 20 days on record after that.

But there’s still one location that hasn’t seen a significant change in the location data — workplaces.

Even in the Modified Phase Two, Gov. Roy Cooper has encouraged people to work from home if possible in an effort to control coronavirus spread.

Figures from the last nine weekdays in the data set — excluding the Memorial Day holiday — indicate an average drop of 36 percent from the baseline figure. That’s only slightly closer to the norm than that figure was in April, when that drop was in the 40 percent range.

“For some people, they haven’t had the option to work from home and we need to be really grateful for those folks who have continued to be out there in different capacities as essential workers,” Southwell said. “We need to ask serious questions about how we can best support them and that’s one of the questions going forward. But for many other people, people are realizing there might be some ways in which they’re able to balance their lives and to perhaps work more from home or from different places. That’s going to be a serious question for a lot of organizations going forward.”

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