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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
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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
Heard on:
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
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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

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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