Characterizing collective physical distancing in the U.S. during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic

Brennan Klein, Timothy LaRock, Stefan McCabe, Leo Torres, Lisa Friedland, Maciej Kos, Filippo Privitera, Brennan Lake, Moritz U.G. Kraemer, John S. Brownstein, Richard Gonzalez, David Lazer, Tina Eliassi-Rad, Samuel V. Scarpino, Alessandro Vespignani, Matteo Chinazzi


The COVID-19 pandemic offers an unprecedented natural experiment providing insights into the emergence of collective behavioral changes of both exogenous (government mandated) and endogenous (spontaneous reaction to infection risks) origin. Here, we characterize collective physical distancing—mobility reductions, minimization of contacts, shortening of contact duration—in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the pre-vaccine era by analyzing de-identified, privacy-preserving location data for a panel of over 5.5 million anonymized, opted-in U.S. devices. We define five indicators of users’ mobility and proximity to investigate how the emerging collective behavior deviates from typical pre-pandemic patterns during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We analyze both the dramatic changes due to the government mandated mitigation policies and the more spontaneous societal adaptation into a new (physically distanced) normal in the fall 2020. Using the indicators here defined we show that: a) during the COVID-19 pandemic, collective physical distancing displayed different phases and was heterogeneous across geographies, b) metropolitan areas displayed stronger reductions in mobility and contacts than rural areas; c) stronger reductions in commuting patterns are observed in geographical areas with a higher share of teleworkable jobs; d) commuting volumes during and after the lockdown period negatively correlate with unemployment rates; and e) increases in contact indicators correlate with future values of new deaths at a lag consistent with epidemiological parameters and surveillance reporting delays. In conclusion, this study demonstrates that the framework and indicators here presented can be used to analyze large-scale social distancing phenomena, paving the way for their use in future pandemics to analyze and monitor the effects of pandemic mitigation plans at the national and international levels.

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