The robots are here — and they want you to socially distance


I’ve written umpteen posts about Boston Dynamics’ menacing robots over the years. I never foresaw that when our dystopian future finally arrived, their sinister role in it would be … nagging people about staying six feet away from each other.

They might get away with this in Singapore but they’d never get away with it here. Young bros in MAGA hats would be punting this thing around the park. If governors want to use robots to enforce compliance with social distancing, they’d better roll out the big boys.

Gretchen Whitmer will end up deploying the ED-209 from “Robocop.” That movie took place in Michigan, didn’t it? Watch, then read on.

How’s the U.S. doing on social distancing now that states are beginning to reopen? Let’s look at three data visualizations to see. This first one comes from a FiveThirtyEight piece reiterating a point that should be familiar to all of us by now: Social distancing began before the stay-at-home orders were issued. Whether you support lockdowns or loathe them, you’re kidding yourself if you think they’re driving Americans’ behavior. This image shows how people in 21 different states (all except one of which went for Trump in 2016) have changed their habits of leaving home over the past three months. Where the line in each is pink, that means fewer people were staying home than did so on the same day in 2019; where it’s blue, that means more people did so than in 2019. The vertical dashed line is the date that that state’s stay-at-home order take effect. In literally every case, the number who were staying home surged massively *before* the lockdown began.

That’s good news for the “reopen now” contingent. Lockdown orders didn’t do much. No point in leaving them in place, then.

But there’s a corollary, per the Upshot. If lockdowns didn’t cause Americans to hunker down, ending them doesn’t mean Americans will burst through the doors of their homes and race to the mall either.

In some states that have already begun that process, like Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska, the same daily economic data shows only meager signs so far that businesses, workers and consumers have returned to their old routines.

Georgia, for example, began to reopen in waves starting April 24, first with gyms, salons and tattoo parlors, and several days later with dine-in restaurants and movie theaters. But the share of small businesses operating and the hours worked in them budged little through the following week, according to data from companies that help firms manage business and track payrolls, or that aggregate credit card transactions. The share of small businesses open remained down about 30 percent from January.

“There’s just no evidence that this partial reopening in Georgia has significantly changed anything in the economy,” said John Friedman, an economist at Brown University and a co-director of Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based organization that is publicly tracking economic data on the crisis from a number of private companies. Consumer spending data in Georgia has fluctuated up and down, but moving averages of the metric have remained about the same.

Georgia did see an uptick in business from residents of other states, which stands to reason. At the time it was the only state in its region to reopen “dine-in restaurants, gyms, hair salons, barbershops and entertainment venues, such as bowling alleys and movie theaters.” But that’s what people like Lindsey Graham from neighboring South Carolina were afraid of. While SC was busy trying to tamp down the epidemic, some residents were across the border in Georgia shopping, possibly getting infected and then bringing the virus back home with them.

The Upshot flags this data from a recent Democracy Fund poll to show how people are prioritizing in weighing where they’ll go once their state reopens. It’s pretty intuitive:

“Essential” stuff is on the table. People will take a calculated risk for basic grooming and hygiene (haircuts and dentist), paying their respects to an acquaintance who’s passed away, and some limited small-scale socialization with friends. Anything beyond that and the numbers shift towards opposition. In particular, the more an activity would involve a crowd the less likely people are to be willing to do it. (I’m guessing that the numbers for restaurants would look even worse if we distinguished takeout/fast food, which is minimal risk, from dine-in.) There is a partisan gap here, with Democrats less likely to do the activities listed above than Republicans are, but it’s minimal — just eight to 12 points according to the Upshot.

One more. This map comes from WaPo and shows what percentage of their time people in every county across the country were spending at home as of April 30 as compared to March 1, April 1, and peak social distancing on April 7. (The map’s interactive so follow the link and play around with it.)

On March 1 most of the country was spending 65-70 percent of its at home. (On the west coast it was a little higher.) The weather has improved considerably since then yet nearly every county in the U.S. is still seeing people spend 80 percent of their time or more at their own residence. That’s come down since April 7, when rates of 85-90 percent or better were common. Americans are getting out of the house more as spring has sprung. But they’re still doing it less than they were two months ago, and it’s anyone’s guess how much of their out-of-the-house time they’re spending at businesses versus just stretching their legs in parks and at beaches. Whether the relaxation of lockdown orders has encouraged people to leave home more often or whether, as we saw above, people are practicing whatever level of social distancing they feel is optimal irrespective of what the government says is also unclear. But ending the lockdowns obviously hasn’t ended social distancing. Nor will it.





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