The COVID-19 Pandemic, Seen Through Restaurant Traffic and Social Distancing

As the COVID-19 coronavirus sweeps across the globe, it presents a public health crisis that is daunting to even the best-prepared communities. While most Western nations have resisted the strict quarantine regime that China first implemented in Wuhan, local and national governments are grappling with the best way to contain the spread of the virus, and will need to make critical decisions in the coming days and weeks.

For those who have not seen it, the Washington Post put together an excellent model on how infection spreads and the potential benefit of alternative approaches to quarantines, such as moderate and extensive “social distancing”. Social distancing, which is a nebulous term but tends to imply a self-driven withdrawal from public to avoid contact and transmission of the virus, may end up being the best option for many communities in the United States while the Trump administration struggles to put together a coherent response plan to the virus.

Social distancing, while potentially a useful lever in the public health toolkit, is of course a bizarre phenomenon to many Americans who are used to being active in their communities. I myself am struggling with the right balance of spending time in public to go pick up groceries and coffee, taking a walk in the sun, etc. and not wanting to serve as a carrier that might potentially pass the latent virus to others - I suspect we will all look to find a healthy “new normal” over the next weeks that minimizes impact to others. These changes will be fascinating to witness because they will represent one of the biggest behavior shifts in modern American history - one that will have major impacts on businesses large and small.

To help see where things might be going, it’s been extremely interesting to data published by OpenTable which shows changes in restaurant activity on a year-over-year (YoY) basis. The data, which is available at Country, State, and City levels of granularity, tells a pretty consistent story - since the start of March, and particularly accelerating on and after March 8th, global restaurant traffic has plummeted.

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Looking ahead, it will be fascinating to see if public activity bounces back quickly or remains repressed for long periods of time. The latter, which might be good from a public health perspective, is likely to be economically fatal for many restaurants and small businesses which depend on customer turnover. Even more concerning - American’s incredibly shallow social safety net offers few benefits for the workers who would be impacted by restaurant and business closures. After forty years of the Republican party cutting social programs, blockading health care reform, and trimming worker’s rights (not to mention hollowing out the CDC and other scientific organizations), it will be interesting to see how this crisis shifts the conversation on the role of government moving forward.