Welcome to the 19th edition of the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker. 

After what seemed like weeks of steady progress, it’s been disheartening to observe the rapid rise of COVID-19 in many regions. As a result, many reopening plans are being slowed or modified to hopefully mitigate the virus’ current trajectory. 

But unlike the initial spread — where travelers between cities, counties, and states carried cases far and wide — we’re seeing localized outbreaks. In California, cases are up, but they are largely driven by a handful of counties. We’ve also seen in our data that many people are traveling less and staying closer to home, which creates highly local traffic patterns with less regional exchange. Hopefully these mobility indicators help mitigate further spiking.

As new data arrives, we’ll see if and how the latest rise tamps down foot traffic in the coming days.

Today, we’re going to continue to review what reemergence has looked like so far. It’s even more complex than we had previously stated: traffic recovery is varying by region not just by the amount of recovery but by the speed and direction of change.

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!

Reemergence is Regionally Complex

When we last checked on foot traffic reemergence, we identified three clear cohorts of business categories:

  • The Still Empty: The first cluster are the businesses which are still empty: airports, entertainment, offices, and public transit hubs. They are all below -60% vs their norms and barely growing at all.
  • The Beginning Reemergence: The second cluster are those categories which are beginning reemergence following the lifting of official orders: shopping malls, hotels, and nightlife venues. They are still far from their pre-COVID norms but are picking up steam.
  • The Steadily Reemerging: The third and final cluster are categories steadily reemerging. These businesses have nearly returned to their pre-COVID norms and are quickly approaching this milestone: grocery stores, big box, coffee shops, fast casual, and casual dining.

With an additional week of data we can see major gains from the second group, businesses which had just begun reemergence. Mall traffic and nightlife, in particular, have stepped up to mix with the steadily reemerging set. Overall, traffic is dramatically up for both groups two and three over the last month.

CHART: Foot Traffic vs. Pre-COVID Norms, by Category

However, there is a ton of variety hiding in the average here. Nationally, traffic is massively up, but at the county level it’s mixed. 

Fast food, for instance, is up nearly 10% nationally compared to pre-COVID norms. Looking at counties just in California, we can see most are still below pre-COVID norms:

Week of 6/22/20

CHART: Fast Food traffic in California Counties, Week of 6/22/20
KEY: California fast food traffic by county

Across the nation, the picture is similarly mixed.

If you’ve read a few of these newsletters, you’re more than familiar with our maxim that reemergence is regional. We’ve looked at similar breakdowns to show how previously common geographies no longer move together, behaviorally. But as we accrue more data, we’re learning that the data varies significantly over time as well. Let’s compare the heatmap above with a snapshot from 4 weeks prior:


Year Over Year Fast Food Traffic Changes Over Time

CHART: Year Over Tear Fast Food Traffic Changes Over Time
KEY: Year Over Year Fast Food Traffic Changes Over Time

In most cases, California counties grew their fast food foot traffic. But the amount of growth varied highly as shown above. For a different visual comparison easier on the eyes, let’s show the change over those four weeks by county:

    CHART: California fast food traffic change over four weeks by county
    KEY: California fast food traffic change over four weeks by county

    This visualization surprised us. We knew that recovery varied from county to county, but to see that the amount of growth or shrinkage over time varies nearly as much is astounding. Over a four week period, some counties lost 10% of their gains while others grew their reemergence by double digits. 

    Unfortunately for business strategy and planning, this fact increases complexity by a factor. We’ve been encouraging you to plan at a level of increased geographic granularity. This analysis shows we must also continually monitor the trajectory of these regions week to week. And remember: these plots were made using data before this week’s COVID growth.

    We’re going to try to send you into the weekend on a positive note. Here is the same fast food reemergence plot for the Northeast:

      CHART: Fast Food reemergence plot for Northeast

      Here, traffic is variable from county to county, but overall fast food traffic is significantly up versus pre-COVID norms. For this category and region, this heatmap is a representation of recovery. It’s been moving this direction for over a month. And yet: with this reemergence, we have not seen it anecdotally correlate to increased infection rates. 

      There are green shoots — for business and health. We will need to find the success stories, learn from them, and repeat them.

      As always, thanks for joining us today. If you have any questions or comments, please send them our way. We enjoy hearing from you.

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