Welcome to the 13th edition of the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker. 

Wherever we turn, there’s that word: reopening. There are plans, qualifications, milestones and roadmaps all based on reopening. It is understandable that there is excitement. But, we should also note hesitancy.

We have previously suggested that we always consider reopening in tandem with reemergence. “Reopening” is a legal change, a new rule that allows businesses to expand their limited offerings or reopen entirely. But “reemergence” describes a community returning to greet those businesses. PlaceIQ’s data shows that reopening and reemergence are following different schedules.

In some regions, people venture out with increasing frequency, even as they remain under local shelter-in-place orders. In others, they wait at home while restaurant dining rooms and barber shops are allowed to reopen. Tracking both reopening and reemergence — a community’s desire to venture out of their homes — is crucial when designing demand-based business strategies.

In today’s issue, we’ll show how tracking reemergence is perhaps even more nuanced than tracking reopening. To do so, we’ll take a look at a regional cut we have yet to examine here: the difference between rural and urban visitation trends.

We’ll also be looking at these rural and urban trends and how they are playing out in Grocery trends nationally, in a live webinar tomorrow, May 13th. Register here to join us

Thanks again for joining us today. And please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions.

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!

Will People Reemerge Faster When There’s More Room?

In past issues we’ve seen how visitation recovery varies significantly from region to region. We sheltered in place as a nation, but we’re reemerging as regions. Multiple factors contribute to this diversity of response: infection growth rates, perceived local risk, and cultural mores all influence a community’s propensity to reemerge. 

One additional factor we have yet to discuss is urbanity. The structure of cities and towns determines the difficulty of social distancing while shopping or commuting. Good luck to those wanting to find 6 spare feet in Penn Station at rush hour (or ever).

To better understand how urbanity affects reemergence, let’s take a look at how urban and rural communities compare. We used county-level census data to slice up the state of Texas, which is just beginning reopening, to focus our study. We’ve weighted the visit counts for rural and urban communities so we can easily compare their trends over time:

Chart Key
CHART: Essential Business Visitation, Texas
CHART: All Out-of-Home Visitation, Texas

Starting at the top, we can immediately see a significant difference. Traffic to essential businesses in both urban and rural communities is following an astoundingly similar trend. The weekly rhythm of the Quarantine Routine is clearly present. Traffic is ~50% below pre-COVID norms. But traffic to all non-residential areas (the lower plot) is very different: rural traffic is ~60% of its usual level while urban traffic is closer to ~40%. Rural communities are significantly more active outside their homes, and that trend is accelerating.

Within the essential business category, there are further differences. Traffic to grocery and big box retail is tracking similarly among both communities:

Chart Key
CHART: Big Box Retail Foot Traffic, Texas
But fast casual dining is significantly different:
CHART: Fast Casual Restaurant Foot Traffic, Texas

Initially, we thought the relative strength of fast casual dining in rural areas could be because restaurants in rural communities were less dependent on workplace lunch traffic. With commuters now not visiting urban office parks, they visited local Chipotle and Panera restaurants.

But this theory didn’t hold water when we analyzed the distances traveled from home to these venues. Neither urban or rural diners are traveling any further or closer to get their fast casual fix:

CHART: Change in Median Distance Traveled from Home to Venue, Among Urban and Rural Texas Communities

Casual restaurants are significantly impacted, but fast casual distances are unchanged. For comparison, visitors to hotels are traveling nearly 50% less, illustrating the changing usage of hotels during the COVID era.

If work-from-home can’t easily explain the fast casual traffic difference, what can? Perhaps rural communities are just hungrier to reemerge (pun not intended…but we’re gonna leave it in). We took a look at rural and urban communities in Georgia as well, since we saw a clear spike in casual dining traffic there the first day dining rooms reopened. Would we see rural communities spike more?

Chart Key
CHART: Casual Restaurant Foot Traffic, Texas
CHART: Casual Restaurant Foot Traffic, Georgia

In Texas, this is clearly the case. When dining rooms reopened, rural communities more than doubled their traffic. In Georgia, there was some additional enthusiasm.

In general, we see relatively more visitation traffic in rural communities and it’s growing faster. Our data suggests these communities are more eager and willing to rememerge, and react to reopening with greater enthusiasm than their urban counterparts. 

But comparing across rural communities we can see that there are differences. Regional data is still required to monitor and adapt to realities and moods on the ground. There is no “hack” for dividing the U.S. into a handful of regions. 

COVID’s spread has challenged many of our organizing geographical assumptions. What regions should we use to analyze a disease that doesn’t recognize soft borders? When commutes aren’t taken and people don’t venture far from home, regions as large as states fail to capture the nuance present. Building effective and efficient business strategies requires more granular data, at the county-level at least.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions or comments. We enjoy hearing from you!

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

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