As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in a number of states, we’re all doing our best to stay safe and healthy. And now, new research tells us that there are a few specific public locations we may want to avoid in order to help slow the spread.
The researchers aimed to predict how people’s movements between places could affect transmission of the COVID-19 virus. To do so, they plugged anonymous location data from mobile-phone apps into an epidemiological model that estimated how quickly the disease spreads. The location data came from 10 of the largest US cities, including Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. For two months, the team mapped how people moved in and out of 57,000 neighborhoods to places like restaurants, churches, gyms, hotels, car dealerships, and sporting-goods stores.
The researchers compared their model’s predicted number of infections in Chicago neighborhoods between March and April with the number of actual infections recorded in those neighborhoods one month later, and found that they accurately predicted the number of confirmed cases.
“We are able to faithfully estimate the contact network between 100 million people for every hour of the day. That is the secret ingredient we have,” said study co-author Jure Leskovec during a press briefing. But while this could seem like glum news, the researchers emphasized that limiting capacity to 20 percent in these locations, rather than shutting down completely, could be a viable solution.
The researchers used their model to simulate different occupancy scenarios, like reopening some facilities while keeping others closed. According to their results, opening restaurants at full capacity resulted in the greatest increase in infections. These numbers were followed by those in gyms, cafes, then hotels and motels.
For example, their model predicted that if Chicago reopened restaurants at full capacity on May 1, there would have been as many as 600,000 more COVID infections that month. Reopening gyms would have resulted in nearly 149,000 more infections. Considering all of the locations together, the model predicted that there would have been as many as 3.3 million more reported cases.
Interestingly enough, the researchers also tested capping occupancy for all of these locations at 30 percent and found that this would reduce the number of additional infections to 1.1 million. Capping occupancy at 20 percent, the model revealed, could reduce cases by more than 80 percent to about 650,000. “Our work highlights that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Leskovec said.
So if you’re really concerned about contracting the virus or spreading it to your loved ones, be sure to limit your activities at the places mentioned above if they’re not operating at 20 percent capacity. Hopefully, using this new insight will help our neighborhoods tailor specific plans to reopen businesses safely in the coming months.