Cell phone data shows Tennesseans are venturing back out, but not fast enough for businesses

Tennesseans didn’t wait for an order from the state to start avoiding exposure to COVID-19 and they haven’t rushed back out since the lifting of safer-at-home orders – especially in metro areas. 

But travel in some parts of the state least affected by coronavirus has returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to a new Vanderbilt School of Medicine analysis of resident mobility using cell phone data.

The most significant decrease in travel statewide is in Davidson County. 

Restaurants, medical offices, churches, and museums are still experiencing steep declines overall in visitation compared to the same time last year. 

But travel to stores selling building materials and supplies fully rebounded outside Davidson County, where trips to department and grocery stores has nearly recovered. 

“Once the virus becomes entrenched in a community, it has this economic contagion as well,” said John Graves, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Health Economic Modeling. “People in that community don’t travel as much and people don’t come into that community.”

Vanderbilt relied on data compiled by SafeGraph COVID-19 Data Consortium that records travel to points of interest, such as shopping centers, from census tracts. It does not include data on individuals. The company tracks 40 million cell phones nationwide and is providing free mobility data to researchers. 

This report looks at travel information from the beginning of January through May 26.

It found that many Tennesseans stopped leaving the house in early March after the first COVID-19 case was reported. By April 1, mobility in Middle Tennessee was down nearly 50% compared to 2019. 

CORONAVIRUS IMPACT: Unemployment claims in Tennessee reach 550,000 since start of pandemic

People began traveling again at the end of April, when Governor Bill Lee lifted the safer-at-home order in areas outside major cities.

But the most significant activity remains outside city limits, with Nashville and Memphis still experiencing the least mobility.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper instituted phase two of the city’s reopening plan on May 25, and could lift restrictions on all businesses near the end of June. Memphis is also considering a full reopening next month.

The largest number of deaths attributed to coronavirus have been in Davidson and Shelby counties, which include Nashville and Memphis. They had 107 and 60 deaths from the pandemic, respectively. Most counties in Tennessee have reported less than five deaths. 

Concern about the economic cost of the pandemic has grown as the full impact comes into view. State officials are working to cut the budget by 12% though they have yet to realize the full financial impact of business closures. 

Nashville finance officials anticipate a devastating cut of at least $234 million of the $2.45 billion budget. 

City leaders are working to ensure businesses follow a consistent set of rules to prevent the spread of the virus – including enhanced sanitation, employee and customer temperature checks, and social distancing, in order to bring shoppers and diners back out. 

“Even with fewer restrictions, restaurant traffic is still off about 20% this week compared to last year,” Graves said. “Church attendance and visits to doctors offices remains very low. 

“Our analysis underscores that as long as the virus is spreading, it only increases the risk of economic contagion the virus has brought along with it.”

Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at smazza@tennessean.com, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.



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