The Immediate Effect of COVID-19 Policies on Social Distancing Behavior in the United States

Rahi Abouk, Babak Heydari


In the absence of a vaccine and effective antiviral medications, most of the non-pharmaceutical interventions focus on reducing social contact rates through different social distancing policies. However, the effectiveness of different policies and their relative impact vis-a-vis that of mechanisms driven by public awareness and voluntary actions have not been studied. This is crucial since in most places we observe significant reductions in social interaction before any policy was implemented. Variations in types and effective dates of different social distancing policies across different states in the US create a natural experiment to study the causal impact of each policy during the early stage of the outbreak. Using these policy variations and the aggregate human mobility and location trends published by Google for the month of March 2020, we employ a quasi-experimental approach to measure the impact of six common policies on people’s presence at home and their mobility in different types of public places. Our results rank six common social distancing policies based on the magnitude and significance of their impact, beyond what has already been achieved through voluntary actions. They show that while strong policies such as statewide stay home mandate and non-essential business closure have strong causal impact on reducing social interactions, most of the expected impact of more lenient policies (such as large gathering ban and school closure mandates) are already reaped from non-policy mechanisms such as voluntary actions and public awareness.

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