Shortly after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-home order last week, pictures of people drinking in bars ricocheted around social media, creating the impression among some that the state was wide-open for business.
The photos made many public health officials cringe because of the risk of spreading COVID-19, but did they represent what was happening in businesses across Wisconsin?
New data suggests a different picture.
The data, gleaned from millions of cellphone signals, indicates an overall uptick in the number of residents leaving their homes in the hours and days after the order and a jump in restaurant and bar visits, an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY shows.
But the overall increase statewide was small and is consistent with a trend toward greater movement that started more than a month ago, according to the analysis.
Wisconsin’s experience in lifting quarantine suddenly and without warning is of keen interest as states across the country weigh how quickly to ease COVID-19 restrictions. Cellphone data provided by San Francisco-based SafeGraph provides unique insights into what happened on the ground immediately after the court’s ruling May 13.
More: Get the latest coronavirus updates from across the nation
Since reaching peak levels of compliance in the second week of April, people in Wisconsin have been leaving home more and more often – even when Evers’ order was in place, the data shows.
That same trend toward more movement has been happening over time in other states, the analysis shows. It’s a phenomenon experts attribute to “quarantine fatigue” and the relaxing of government-imposed stay-at-home orders.
The SafeGraph data analyzed by the Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY is based on the daily recorded movements of more than 16 million cellular devices. The data does not say to whom the phones belong.
Experts cautioned that not everyone has a cellphone, so the data misses people.
Experts also warned about drawing conclusions from the data in the days after the state Supreme Court order, noting daily fluctuations are possible and weekly averages are better. The SafeGraph data is current through Saturday.
There should be caution about assuming more movement will mean a spike in the spread of COVID-19, said Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which analyzes mobility using four sources, including SafeGraph.
Mokdad noted that movement has increased in some states while the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 has dropped. That surprised some researchers, who expected an increase in mobility would lead to higher infection rates.
In Wisconsin, where movement increased by 20% in the past five weeks, the percentage of positive cases was flat, then trended down, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and Wisconsin data.
There are many factors that might affect the percentage of positive cases, including who is being tested, according to state officials.
Mokdad suspects one factor is that those people who are moving more are being careful to keep their distance from others, wear a mask and wash their hands.
“We don’t have all the data we need to understand this new mobility, who is moving and how they are doing it,” he said. “The message is it is too early to tell.”
Businesses rebound as total mobility inches up
After the Supreme Court decision a week ago, some bars and restaurants opened immediately.
The order was issued late on the afternoon of May 13. The data, which can track the movement of cellphones to specific businesses, did not show much of an increase that night.
In the days after the order, restaurants and bars experienced a change, the data shows. Before the court order, restaurants saw 44% of their usual traffic. It grew to 54% on the Friday after the order.
Bars were hit hard by the stay-home order. Even those that found a way to stay open – selling food, for instance – saw traffic plummet.
Before the Supreme Court lifted restrictions, bars had 29% of typical foot traffic. After the court order, it grew to 47%.
The data showing all movement statewide, not just bars and restaurants, was more subdued.
In the three days after the order, the share of people leaving their homes in Wisconsin grew by 3% compared with the same three-day period the week before. That rate was in keeping with what the data showed was generally happening in other Midwestern states and nationally.
Throughout the pandemic, mobility has been highest in the South and lowest in the Northeast.
In studying the Wisconsin numbers, it’s important to remember that while many counties opened, businesses in the state’s two largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, largely remained closed. Some counties, including Brown County, initially had orders staying closed, then quickly dropped them, allowing businesses to open.
Even before the high court acted, the Evers administration was moving to relax certain restrictions, allowing stores to open with limited capacity.
After the ruling, Evers tried to issue guidance through the formal rulemaking process, as required by the decision, but the effort was rebuffed by Republicans who control the committee handling such rules.
Some stayed home before Evers’ order
The story of how people have moved or stayed home doesn’t perfectly line up with government orders.
In Wisconsin and other states, as concern about COVID-19 circulated in February and March, people began to stay home before government orders were issued.
In Wisconsin, about 20% of residents started staying home before Evers’ order March 24, cellphone data shows. The data does not include names or any identifying information, but researchers suspect the people who hunkered down early are those most at risk – people over the age of 65 and those of all ages with underlying health issues.
Mokdad said he doesn’t think those who chose to stay home initially are among those moving around now.
“The first people to stay in the house will be the last to come out,” he said. “They stayed home before there was a social distancing order and were afraid. They will stay home until there is an all-clear sign.”
In early April, half of Wisconsin residents largely stayed at home. That period marks the highest level of compliance with Evers’ safer-at-home order.
In the middle of April, people began to move, data shows. That concerned experts at first, but the feared surge in cases has not followed, though there is still concern a secondary wave could come.
Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease expert with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said factors such as improved weather and the end of at-home schooling in some districts probably contributed to a general trend of increased movement.
“I think there were things that helped people stay put in the beginning of this, which is that there was a lot of fear and uncertainty and the weather wasn’t great,” she said. “I’m sure people are experiencing some cabin fever despite their best intentions.”
Safdar said the trend worries her – particularly the increased number of patrons at restaurants – because people cannot wear masks while eating and drinking.
“We know that adherence to physical distancing is what has helped flatten the curve and that adherence needs to stay,” Safdar said. “It can’t be at 100%, of course, but the higher it is, the better it is.”
Safdar continues to advise people to avoid crowds and enclosed spaces, such as religious gatherings.
Thomas Oliver, a health policy expert at UW-Madison, said the increased movement in Wisconsin and mixed messaging sent by the patchwork of rules from authorities at all levels is concerning.
“It was inevitable you would see slipping adherence to the recommended guidelines regardless, but now we have so many contradictory and competing guidelines,” he said.
Oguzhan Alagoz, an expert in infectious disease modeling at UW-Madison, said the pictures he saw after the court order of unmasked people standing close together inside bars are troubling, and he warns of more coronavirus cases.
But he is optimistic there won’t be a spike because of what has happened since people began to move more beginning five weeks ago.
“I still think this will increase cases, no one can argue that,” he said shortly after the order was issued last week. “But I don’t expect to see double or triple the movement, and I don’t see terrible exponential growth in a couple of weeks.”
Contributing: Erin Caughey and Andrew Mollica, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Contact John Diedrich at (414) 224-2408 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @john_diedrich, Instagram at @john_diedrich, LinkedIn or Facebook.