COVID-19

Is it safe to visit gyms, cafes, and stores? Here’s what the data says.

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon May 20, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace Morning Report
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MIT researchers say we need to "ration our social contact" during these times. But how best to do that? Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Is it safe to visit gyms, cafes, and stores? Here’s what the data says.

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon May 20, 2020
MIT researchers say we need to "ration our social contact" during these times. But how best to do that? Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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On Wednesday, Connecticut became the last state to begin lifting restrictions initially put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The state’s phase one reopening includes outdoor dining, retail and even zoos — with restrictions.

But if we think about budgeting our social contact during this time, how do you get the biggest bang for your buck? Researchers at MIT have created a framework to assess the “cumulative risk” of opening different types of businesses and public spaces according to their economic benefit and their likelihood of facilitating the virus’s spread.

“Every time we have an interaction with another human, especially in a dense space, that’s a chance for the virus to spread. So we really need to ration our social contact,” said Seth Benzell, a postdoctoral associate at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and an author of the paper.

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke to Benzell about the implications of the research on the country’s reopening plans. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: What are some of the dimensions in this framework you’ve developed for rationing social contact?

Seth Benzell: The way we conceptualize the decision to leave one type of location open and close down another type of location is as a trade-off between the economic and social benefits of a location being open and its cumulative contribution to transmission risk.

So, on the plus side of a location, we have things like the revenue, its payroll and its number of employees. Then, on the transmission risk side, we use large-scale mobility data through people’s cellphones to evaluate how many visits a location has and how crowded that location is for how long — as well as how far people had to travel to get to those locations.

But I just want to emphasize that it’s a cumulative risk. We’re not trying to measure the risk per visit, for example, going to a bank, but rather the cumulative transmission risk from all of the visits to all of the banks.

Brancaccio: So who wins? It’s big-box stores for starters, right?

Benzell: Oh, definitely. Some of the locations that come out really good in our measure are really intuitive ones that many states have identified already as being essential services. It’s things like grocery stores, general merchandise stores (you should read “Walmart” there), banks.

Brancaccio: In this framework, who opens a bit later?

Benzell: Yeah, so the locations that are worst in our metric are gyms, cafes, juice bars and dessert parlors; sporting goods stores and liquor and tobacco stores. Liquor and tobacco stores, I do think, is a little bit of a surprising one to see on this list because so many states have listed liquor and tobacco stores as essential businesses. And, according to our metric, they come out very poorly, not a huge economic contribution, mediocre consumer value.

Brancaccio: There are some people who are feeling very thirsty right now saying, “Oh come on, [liquor and tobacco stores are] a major contribution to lifestyle,” but OK, I’m hearing you.

Benzell: And what I want to say next is, I don’t want to be a killjoy here. But these are strange and troubling times, and every time we have an interaction with another human, especially in a dense space, that’s a chance for the virus to spread. So we really need to ration our social contact, and think really seriously about, “If I can only interact with people so many times today, do I really want to spend so much of my social contact budget on a trip to a liquor store?”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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