Americans who have endured a month or more of state-ordered lockdowns related to the spread of the coronavirus in recent days have been venturing out of their homes more as they grow frustrated after spending so much time away from their normal lives.
Cellphone data collected by the University of Maryland's Maryland Transportation Institute shows the percentage of people staying at home in most states peaked around April 14, the Tuesday after Easter.
People were on the move more, especially in rural Southern spots in Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee, in the two weeks that have followed, the institute’s measure of social distancing found.
And in more recent days, people in most other states have begun to let their guard down as governors begin discussing paths toward reopening the economy and loosening restrictions.
“We are seeing significant drops in social distancing behavior in 48 different states. It's not just the southeastern states anymore,” said Lei Zhang, who directs the Maryland Transportation Institute.
The percentage of Americans who are staying at home is down 18 points in the last two weeks, Zhang said. Non-work-related trips are up 13 percent over the same time span.
Stay-at-home orders are an extreme tool a government can use to fight a global pandemic, but they have a limited shelf life. Most public health experts say those orders can last three or four weeks before citizens get tired of the monotony and depression of sitting on a couch.
Residents in some of the most dangerous epicenters of the growing outbreak are still adhering to stay-at-home orders. Social distancing index scores are highest in the District of Columbia, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan, areas where the number of COVID-19 cases is still growing substantially.
More than half of D.C. residents are staying home and almost half of New Yorkers are behind closed doors, the data show.
But social distancing scores have been falling consistently in the Deep South, the Mountain West and in Great Plains states. Fewer than a quarter of residents in Arkansas and Mississippi are staying home; fewer than 30 percent are staying home in South Carolina, South Dakota, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, Montana, Maine, North Carolina and Iowa, the data shows.
Photos over the weekend showed large numbers of people on the beaches of Southern California.
Some of those decreases have coincided with protests conservative groups have mounted at state capitols, calling on governors to reopen their states. Those protests began, slowly, in the days after Easter, and they have continued to expand to new states.
“From the timeline, there is clearly some correlation between the protests and increased mobility,” Lei said.
Public health experts have urged Americans to emerge from the strict stay-at-home orders with extreme caution. They acknowledge the pain the orders and the economic shutdown have caused, but they say they are necessary to end the outbreak sweeping the nation.
“Clearly this is something that is hurting from the standpoint of economics and the standpoint of things that have nothing to do with the virus, but unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said at a White House briefing last week. “So what you do if you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you’re going to set yourself back. So as painful as it is to go by the careful guidelines of gradually phasing into a reopening, it’s going to backfire.”
But in many cases, the governors who have issued the stay-at-home orders lack the ability to force people inside.
Vice President Pence makes it a habit at the regular coronavirus task force briefings to acknowledge the sacrifices Americans are making and to credit those sacrifices for bending the epidemiological curve downward.
But those health experts say that without a vaccine or a treatment capable of curing COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, it is up to individuals to do their part.
“The public health measures that are put in place, these lockdowns that are put in place are difficult,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's technical lead combating the coronavirus, told The Hill in a recent interview. “We need people to be understanding and patient and do their part.”
As states begin to slowly relax the orders, they risk a second wave of viral infections — and, potentially, a politically unpopular decision to order their residents back indoors. Lei said another factor is likely to inspire more people to leave their homes, and potentially to put themselves and others at risk.
“As the weather gets warmer, all of us in D.C. and other urban areas having stayed home for so long, I can imagine we are all eager to go to Ocean City and other rural areas,” Lei said. “We see a big difference in the way people perceive and practice social distancing between rural and urban areas.”