Most Americans voluntarily stayed at home during the early days of the COVID-19 tsunami, before states began issuing official “shelter-in-place” orders, new research indicates.
Why? Because statewide emergency declarations coupled with news—of first infections, first fatalities and school closures—were motivation enough to get folks to stay home. This was more motivating than quarantine mandates imposed weeks later, say investigators.
The findings follow a review of U.S. cellphone signal patterns from early March through much of April. The data generated by more than 20 million smartphones a day across all 50 states illustrated how much or how little users were moving about on a daily basis. That information was then stacked up against a timeline of state and local policy decisions.
Since March, “mobility fell substantially in all states. Even ones that have not adopted major distancing mandates,” said study lead author Sumedha Gupta, an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
That, she said, is because, even without stay-at-home requirements, people responded almost immediately to the alarming information they were getting.
“There is little evidence that stay-at-home mandates induced distancing,” said Gupta. Instead, it appears that “early and information-focused actions have had bigger effects.”
The findings, which have not been peer-reviewed, should be considered preliminary. They appear in a “working paper” published recently by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research.
The team compiled a list of policy “events” as they unfolded. In most states that trajectory began with a series of emergency declarations, including a State of Emergency, a Public Health Emergency, and/or a Public Health Disaster.
By March 16, all 50 states had enacted these measures, although they did not specifically impose restrictions on movement. But they often overlapped with news reports of the first local cases and deaths, and likely “conveyed the seriousness of the