Welcome to the 12th edition of the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker. 

Two weeks ago, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp detailed the state’s plans to begin reopening the state economy. Gyms, bowling alleys, salons, and many other businesses which were ordered closed during the shutdown were allowed to open on April 24th, with additional social distancing requirements. Restaurants could host diners, starting April 7th, if they met certain guidelines.

As we’ve detailed previously, cultural cues drove citizens to shelter-in-place, not bureaucratic orders. As we begin our regional reemergence, will formal legislation unleash demand? Or will people wait for cultural cues or science-based mandates to signal it’s safe to venture out? 

To inform these questions, we’re taking a closer look at Georgia and the early impact of their plan to reopen the state. While we do see some clear effects in dining, the rest of the picture is more complex.

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What Went on in Georgia

Before we begin, a bit of housekeeping: no one at PlaceIQ is an epidemiologist or public health expert. We will not be attempting to link what we’re seeing to infection rates as we don’t believe we’re qualified to. What we can do is measure the impact this is having on businesses and consumer movement. (However, if you are an expert, please: use our data for research.) 

With that out of the way, let’s dive into how visitation in Georgia has changed over the last month:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume in Georgia vs. Pre-Pre-COVID Norms, 7-Day Moving Average

Traffic to beaches in Georgia is nearly 150% above its pre-COVID, February average. But while traffic lifted off following the legislative change, we can see that beach traffic has been creeping upward since the beginning of April. Much like it has for the rest of the nation:

Chart Key
CHART: Nature & Outdoors Foot Traffic
Beaches are a component of our “Nature & Outdoors” index; we can see a major national spike hit the last weekend in April — though it does not match Georgia’s magnitude.

Why was beach traffic creeping upward in Georgia for weeks before the easing of restrictions? Partially, we can assume higher temperatures played a part. Highs did touch 80+ on April 25th, after staying below 75 since April 10th. But, if weather was the driving force here, we would have seen similar traffic prior to April 10th when temperatures were on average warmer than late April. Clearly, weather alone cannot explain the 100%+ rise.

CHART: Atlanta, GA weather for April 2020

(Atlanta, GA weather for April 2020, via Weather Underground)

If we remove beaches from our chart to get a better view of the remaining categories we can see that several categories had traffic inflections in mid-April, around the 12th:

CHART: % Change in Foot Traffic Volume in Gerogia vs. Pre-COVID Norms, 7-Day Moving Average

Several categories — including fast casual dining, grocery stores, and casual dining — began to rebuild their foot traffic figures in mid-April. And none of these categories registered a massive spike when restrictions eased. They just continued along their previous trends. For businesses that were already open, the lifting of restrictions in Georgia did not appear to impact their momentum.

However, there is one very notable caveat. While many casual restaurants remained open and pivoted to food for pick-up or delivery, these businesses had greater ground to cover compared to fast food or fast casual restaurants. As we’ve continually seen, traffic to casual dining has been very, very low. By allowing casual restaurants in Georgia to host diners on-site, traffic did in fact spike:

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

Overnight, casual dining in Georgia rose to within 60% below it’s pre-COVID traffic, after staying below -70% for the past month. And the spike does not appear to be short lived: for the 3 days following the reopening of dining rooms, we’re seeing a normal weekday trend. We will be monitoring this very closely to see if traffic spikes from this new baseline come Friday.

Looking at the data in hand, there is no clear narrative that official reopening orders created a flood of activity outside our homes. They can amplify existing trends (as with beaches or fast food, whose recoveries are well underway across the nation) and they may significantly lift foot traffic baselines by allowing old business functions to return (as with casual dining). 

Overall, besides a spike in casual dining and a rush to beaches, foot traffic in Georgia continued to rise along existing trends. This suggests that we will see continual increases in traffic to essential businesses, regardless of local orders. In fact, the numbers already bear this out:

Chart Key
CHART: Essential Business Foot Traffic

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

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