Characterizing collective physical distancing in the U.S. during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic
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 the 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. The indicators defined here allow the quantification of behavior changes across the rural/urban divide and highlight the statistical association of mobility and proximity indicators with metrics characterizing the pandemic's social and public health impact such as unemployment and deaths. This study provides a framework to study massive social distancing phenomena with potential uses in analyzing and monitoring the effects of pandemic mitigation plans at the national and international level.