Google data indicates Summit County’s stay-at-home order is working
New data from Google is shedding some light on just how compliant Summit County residents have been with the March 25 stay-at-home order the county issued to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some numbers are stark: The category that includes restaurants, shops and cafes, for instance, saw an 84% decline in visitors; parks saw a 47% decrease and workplaces saw 76% fewer people.
The data is culled from Google users who have location history enabled on their cellphones. It’s the same process the internet behemoth uses to establish popular times at locations on Google Maps, according to information included along with the data. The latest data is from March 29 and is measured against a baseline set in the five weeks between Jan. 3 and Feb. 6 of this year, generally one of the busiest stretches of the tourist season.
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said he is encouraged that the data indicates people are staying home, but that now is not the time to let up.
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“Please do all you can to continue fighting the spread,” Bullough wrote in a statement. “We are grateful for all of the individuals and businesses who continue to aid us in this fight with their cooperation and diligence.”
Statewide, there were 1,738 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday. That’s resulted in 148 hospitalizations and 13 deaths. Bullough has estimated the number of daily new cases in Summit County will continue to rise until hitting a peak sometime around April 16, though he said that is based on modeling that may be inaccurate. He has said that more testing would yield more data that would help public health officials effectively model and battle the disease. So far, no one has died in Summit County, though there have been 265 confirmed cases and 21 hospitalizations.
Bullough has said the Health Department is studying other areas around the nation and around the world to learn from their attempts to return to normalcy following a peak of cases and avoid repeating their mistakes. The fear is that opening the economy too soon would yield to another spike in cases.
“It has always been one of our goals to return business operations and everyday life to what they were prior to the pandemic as soon as we can safely do so,” Bullough wrote. “If we aren’t strategic about how and when we do that, we’ll end up right back where we started, however.”
Summit County is one of the hardest hit areas in the state, and Utah remains one of a handful of states that has not issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Summit County was the first government in the state to issue such an order, which effectively shuttered the local economy.
Many area officials report seeing anecdotal evidence similar to what the Google data shows.
Alison Kuhlow is the executive director of the Historic Park City Alliance, an organization that represents businesses on or nearby Main Street. She pointed out the timespan used to set the benchmark for the Google data included the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps setting a high benchmark. But she said that even with that comparison, the decrease in traffic to restaurants and shops wasn’t as dramatic as she might have thought.
“Almost all the businesses are closed on Main Street. So, I mean, it makes sense,” Kuhlow said. “I’m surprised it’s only down 84%.”
Statewide, that drop was 41%.
The category that includes grocery stores, drug stores and pharmacies has seen a 65% drop-off in Summit County compared to 14% statewide, according to the Google data. Those businesses are some of the few that are deemed essential in the county and still allowed to operate.
Several area grocery stores have shortened hours, including Smith’s Food and Drug at Kimball Junction, the Market at Park City, and Fresh Market in Park City. As of Monday, the Foodtown in Kamas was maintaining its regular schedule, with some hours restricted for senior-only shopping. Smith’s is offering senior-only shopping, as well.
Officials have stressed the benefits of outdoor recreation during the pandemic for people’s mental health, but the Google data indicates a 47% drop-off in visits to parks.
That category includes national parks, beaches, dog parks and marinas; it is unclear whether it includes trails like those maintained by the Snyderville Basin Recreation District. Brian Hanton is the director of the district and he said he has seen fewer users on the trails, but didn’t have data to corroborate the Google statistics. The district has closed its dog parks and is considering closing trailheads to bolster social distancing efforts. He said spring break is a normal time to see fewer users and that the district will be closing trails to protect them from damage during the mud season.
“I just hope that cabin fever doesn’t tempt people too much and they get out on the trails early,” Hanton wrote in an email. “We also hope that people are being respectful of the trails and staying off. I know I have seen a lot of bikes on vehicles so hopefully they are using good judgment.”
Google has a “privacy threshold” it needs to surpass to include data in the mobility reports. If there aren’t enough visitors to an area to ensure anonymity, Google said it doesn’t show a change to protect its users’ privacy. According to the report, Google anonymizes the data and includes “artificial noise” in the dataset to avoid being able to track one specific individual’s movements.
The company indicates it hopes the data is useful for public health officials to learn about populations in aggregate and contribute to the fight against COVID-19.
The report can be seen at google.com/covid19/mobility/.
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“We’re kind of turning the corner … and it’s now time to maybe put out the welcome mat in a careful and thoughtful manner,” said Bill Malone, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau.”