Welcome to the 10th edition of the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker.

As we appear to have ‘flattened the curve’ in many cities, yet the economic pain persists, it seems like most of the talk this past week has been about reopening. When will it happen? How will it happen? Are we ready? Who will be setting the schedules? 

Today we’ll examine the topic of reopening to illustrate how we can see that it is already actually occurring in many markets, with or without formal orders. By examining foot traffic trends to fast food restaurants, we will see how regions are venturing out on a variety of schedules. We may have sheltered-in-place as a nation, but we’re reopening as regions. 

We’ll also take a look at how we celebrated a different holiday under quarantine: 4/20.

We are gratified to see our analyses being included in various reports, since it is our goal to contribute to the #dataforgood effort. If you choose to re-use one of our analysis, all we ask is that you attribute the analysis or content to PlaceIQ. Thank you!

Regional Revivals Take Place Ahead of Orders

As we examined our first six weeks post-COVID, we noted how cultural, not bureaucratic, signals awakened us to the reality of COVID. We should expect our reemergence to be no different:

Cultural cues appear to have snapped most of us into shelter-in-place mode. The formal orders brought in the laggards. We need to keep this recent history in mind as we plan for, “opening up America again.” Populations aren’t likely to rush out due to formal measures. People will trickle out, waiting for cultural cues (locally or nationally) that it’s safe to return to form. This transition will take time. And unlike the Panic & Prepare phase in March, it looks like these transitions will have different schedules in different regions.

This theory has been borne out in the data, much sooner than expected. Non-essential businesses remain closed, waiting for formal orders. But by closely evaluating visitation to fast food restaurants, we can clearly see people venturing outside at significantly different rates by metro area:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume to Fast Food Dining vs. Pre-COVID Norms, by DMA, 7-Day Moving Average
Chart Key

Here we’ve plotted daily foot traffic to fast food dining for the most populous 75 DMAs in the country, compared to weekday Pre-COVID norms. 

The first major insight here is the difference between our national decline and our regional reopening. When traffic dropped precipitously during the Panic & Prepare phase, markets dropped together within a ~30 point band. In the last two weeks the markets are now spread out over a ~55 point range, which appears to be further diverging.

Markets with early and significant outbreaks (like New York, Miami, San Francisco, Detroit, and Florida) had the greatest initial decline in traffic and remain at consistent lows. Markets with fewer cases have exhibited significant growth, with fast food foot traffic in Wichita, Little Rock, Tulsa, Chattanooga and Memphis all above their pre-COVID norms.

Fast food is a fantastic indicator to gauge reemergence ahead of reopening, the latter of which often requires formal rules. It is less essential relative to grocery (you aren’t stocking up for a week of meals at a drive-through) and an accessible luxury (especially for those stuck at home, cooking endless meals and washing a constant stream of dishes). 

By evaluating regional traffic trends to fast food we can illustrate the vastly different approaches to reemergence that people are taking by market. These can be used as cues to gauge the hunger or hesitancy within a market to reopen, ahead of formal orders.

We will certainly be keeping our eye on these signals and more to better understand the movements on the ground.

Traffic to Dispensaries Spikes to Celebrate 4/20

Our team in Northern CA shared an interesting insight: on Saturdays, a PlaceIQ’er routinely bikes past one of the most popular dispensaries in Oakland. Steadily, over the past few weekends, the well-spaced line has been growing across the parking lot to the curb. 

The growth is likely not just foot traffic. Anecdotally, we hear cannabis delivery is booming in the Bay Area. These are nothing if not stressful times, and credible research shows American are partaking in various recreational activities to take the edge off

But is this uptick part of our normal foot traffic spike leading up to a holiday? Last Tuesday was 4/20 afterall, the informal holiday celebrating all things cannabis. We took a look at our data on visitation to dispensaries in markets where cannabis is legal to see:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume vs. Pre-COVID Norms

The foot traffic spike to dispensaries positively dwarfs the gains big box and grocery saw ahead of Easter. Visits to dispensaries were nearly at pre-COVID norms on the holiday itself, and traffic picked up significantly prior as people prepared for the 4/20 holiday.

This isn’t too surprising. However, what we weren’t expecting was the significant spike to dispensaries we observed during the Panic & Prepare phase. Traffic was up more than 20% as people stocked up before sheltering in place. 

There’s even a regional story when we break out traffic by market:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume vs. Pre-COVID Norms
  1. Declines in traffic to Las Vegas dispensaries dwarfs all other markets, over 90% down compared to pre-COVID norms, highlighting the market’s dependence on tourist traffic for all forms of business.
  2. California traffic swung wildly over a few days, from nearly -80% to  -30%, while dispensaries’ status as essential businesses was up in the air.
  3. The cannabis business is strongest in Seattle, even up 30% vs pre-COVID norms on 4/20.

Traffic to dispensaries in Seattle has remained remarkably resilient, with 4/20 traffic taking it near and above pre-COVID norms for over a week.

This chart also illustrates one of the smaller narratives which occurred when the Bay Area issued their first shelter-in-place orders. Most details were impressively coordinated across counties; however, the cannabis business was a notable exception. The counties forgot to hash out whether or not dispensaries were essential business. Many closed, temporarily, rather than try to make sense of the varying rules which emerged. In less than a week, the issue was settled — apparently, cannabis is essential. As a result, you can see foot traffic impressively snap back from a nearly 350 point decline in just 2 days.

Traffic metrics for retail, auto, pharmacy, work life, and more are available for download below.


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