Cellphone Location Data Shows More Than 15M American Users Gathering at Pre-Pandemic Levels

The social distancing habits built by millions of Americans since mid-March might be breaking, according to a new analysis of cellphone location data. Analytics and marketing company Cuebiq found more than 15 million Americans in the contiguous U.S. are slowly standing as close to one another as they would before the coronavirus. The data, published by NBC News Friday, comes as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb while states relax social distancing orders.

Cuebiq looked at the location data from over 15 million mobile devices from March 1 to June 2 in over 450 counties to find out how often people stood next to one another and up to 50 feet away from another person while outside of their home. The contact levels are still low but have come back up as of late. In some counties, the data showed people already at near pre-pandemic levels of nearness. Some are at or even above pre-coronavirus levels of nearness.

The data does not directly link coronavirus spread with social distancing behavior, especially since 50 feet is over eight times the six-feet distance the CDC recommends people keep between themselves. Instead, the data can be used to understand how more Americans are going out as stay-at-home orders have been lifted across the country. There was a massive decrease in nearness on March 13, when President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency. Distancing was at its highest nationally on March 26, when Colorado and Kentucky issued their stay-at-home orders.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts advised social distancing as one of the best ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Earlier this month, The Lancet published a meta-analysis showing social distancing was the "most effective" way to do so, even better than face masks. The virus is spread mostly through close contact, mostly through respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs.

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However, experts are now concerned that the nationwide protests against police brutality and racism will increase the risk of spreading the virus, although many protesters have worn masks. "When people get animated, they get involved in the demonstration, they start chanting and shouting and screaming, very often they take their mask off," Dr. Anthony Fauci told Yahoo News. He later added he is "concerned" about the virus spreading during the protests.

There are now 7.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data. In the U.S. alone, there are just over 2 million confirmed cases, with 114,357 deaths. More than 540,000 Americans have recovered from COVID-19 and 21.9 million have been tested as of Friday afternoon.