COVID-19 and Movement Patterns in New Jersey

Do you feel as if you have been at home for a long time during the COVID-19 pandemic?

If yes, you are not alone. New Jersey instituted a stay-at-home policy on Saturday, March 21. As a part of a multiphase reopening process, NJ ended maximum restrictions and moved to Stage One Reopening on May 18, 2020.

Using data from anonymized mobile devices and building footprints, we examined how mobility patterns changed in NJ for the period of March 1, 2020, to May 17, 2020. This two and half month span includes the period with the maximum restrictions on individuals and businesses.

Mobility in the state of New Jersey had already slowed down by early March. At its lowest point, travel levels to over 150,000 Points-of-Interest throughout NJ, including retail, commercial, healthcare, food establishments and other essential and non-essential establishments, dropped 80 percent compared to the first week of March.

After a gradual decline in the second week of March, there was a sharp drop over the next two weeks to the lowest levels of travel, starting the week of March 22. Reduction in travel varied by county, with the greatest declines in the northern and central counties.

In addition to the volume of trips made, distances travelled and time spent at each location also declined. The shortest visits distance-wise were to locations in the northern counties which experienced the highest incidence of Covid-19 cases. Generally, the time spent at the destination was higher as well in those areas.

By the week of April 12, there was a gradual uptick in travel with greater increases in some areas in the coastal and southern counties compared to others.

During the 10-week period, people traveled to certain types of establishments more than to others. Examples of such establishments are: “General Line Grocery Merchant Wholesalers”, “boat dealers”, “hardware stores”, “Appliance Repair and Maintenance”, “Home and Garden Equipment Repair and Maintenance”, “Nursery, Garden Center, and Farm Supply Stores”, “Masonry contractors”, “Miscellaneous Durable Goods Merchant Wholesalers”, and “Farm Supplies Merchant Wholesalers”.

There was a rise in the second week of March in the number of visits to supermarkets, and food, alcohol, and convenience stores, in almost all NJ counties, indicating rushed shopping as people realized that a pandemic may be imminent.

Although the whole state slowed down in terms of travel, there was a greater slowdown in areas with higher prevalence of the disease. Travel levels also varied by poverty levels, and by purpose of the visit. In towns and cities with higher COVID cases, food shopping trips, for example, decreased more compared to the pre-crisis period, as poverty levels increased. In contrast, in places with low COVID levels, as poverty levels increased, food shopping trip rates decreased less, compared to early March.

When people traveled farther to buy food, alcohol and related items, they also spent more time in those facilities, probably because they had to wait in line to enter the store, and because they shopped for larger quantities of goods.

As distance traveled to healthcare facilities increased in low poverty areas, time spent at the healthcare facility increased. However, in high poverty areas, even after traveling long distances, there are places where the average time spent at health services facilities was quite short – less than 50 minutes.

Transportation in NJ keeps the state’s economic engine running. Even under normal circumstances, there are tremendous geographic differences in economic, social and health outcomes in NJ. These differences translated to disparate impacts on the amount, distance and time spent in travel during the COVID-19 shutdown.

While the pandemic is global, its effects are local. In what is termed as humanity’s first “data-driven pandemic”, a starting point to a robust and inclusive recovery will require analysis of the what, how and when of mobility disruptions during COVID-19. Determining the effect of such disruptions on the wellbeing of people and businesses will help to identify the overall strategy and the range of solutions necessary for inclusive economic recovery at the local level.

The full report may be found below: