Data Suggests Marylanders Are Moving Around More

The Ocean City boardwalk reopened this past weekend. The chilly weather may have kept the crowds down in some places, but in others, there was plenty of action. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

After weeks of trying to keep their residents cooped up at home, several states are beginning a move toward commerce and social interaction.

That’s not the case in Maryland, where a six-week-old stay-at-home order remains in effect.

Despite that restriction, data released Monday by researchers at the Maryland Transportation Institute at the University of Maryland shows many residents have come to regard the order as mere suggestion.

Using mobile device and vehicle tracking tools, health care metrics and other data, the researchers found that no state has met the six criteria established by experts for returning to pre-pandemic commerce and social interaction.

They also found that in one of the categories they measured — increases in recent out-of-state travel — Maryland ranks in the top 10, along with neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Because of the ease with which COVID-19 is spread from person to person and the lingering concern about overwhelming the health care system, travel and hospital usage data are important barometers for governors and those advising them — particularly as pleasant spring weather arrives, people get restless and pressure to reopen the economy grows.

“Reopening has become a politically charged issue,” said the Maryland Transportation Institute’s director, Dr. Lei Zhang.

“Now everyone can go directly to (the Society and Economy Reopening Tool), assess reopening readiness in their state and county, and learn what more needs to be done for safe and responsible reopening.”

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed a stay-at-home order on March 30 and it remains in effect. He said last week that the Maryland is starting to see the kinds of progress that could allow the state to advance to Phase 1 of its Roadmap to Recovery.

In addition to its finding that no state is fully ready to re-open, based on criteria established by the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, researchers from the University of Maryland also found:

  • No state has observed more than 14 days of decreasing COVID-19 cases.
  • Most states — including Maryland — do not have enough contact tracing workers or sufficient technology “that can allow their current contact tracing workers to effectively trace all new cases”
  • 21 states — including Maryland — do not have sufficient testing capacity as shown by high positive test rates
  • All states, except New York and New Jersey, have unused ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients, but in 23 states — including Maryland — the utilization rate is above 50%, “potentially leaving them without sufficient capacity to accommodate a surge in cases”
  • Partial re-openings have produced 4.6 million more out-of-state trips per day that cross state borders in the U.S, potentially causing new outbreaks
  • Between April 23 and May 8, the social distancing index dropped by 13 points nationwide, the percentage of people staying home dropped by 19%, the number of non-work trips increased by 16%, and distance traveled increased by 21% nationwide.

The University of Maryland research team found that 31% of Maryland residents are staying home each day. Residents make nearly three trips per day (2.9) on average, and more than one-third of residents (36%) travel out of state each day.

According to Unacast, a firm that uses mobile device tracking to gauge individual mobility, the U.S. as a whole is again a nation on the move.

The firm’s social distancing activity algorithm calculates the extent to which states and nations are reducing travel, non-essential trips and “encounters density,” a measure of how close individuals get to one another.

In its most up-to-date report, the nation got a grade of D-, the same grade the state of Maryland received.

While abysmal, the state is in good company. No state scored above a C+. Nearly half the states (24) scored an F.

Within the state, Carroll, Harford, St. Mary’s, Cecil, Talbot, Charles, Allegany and Washington counties all scored F’s. Frederick, Calvert, Queen Anne’s and Prince George’s all scored D-.

Hogan is known to be an avid poll-taker who devours data. But a spokesman declined to say on Monday whether Hogan is briefed on travel data generated by mobile device tracking.

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.