As states start to reopen, here’s where people are going

Americans are getting a burger and a haircut — but not dinner and a movie


Every state and most counties have loosened stay-at-home restrictions at least a little, and U.S. residents appear to be venturing out with varying degrees of caution.

Share of time spent at home, for the seven-day period ending on:
Less time at home
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Note: Counties with fewer than 100 devices in the dataset are shown in gray. Source: Washington Post analysis of SafeGraph data. See full methodology at bottom of article.

In and around the nation’s densest cities, people are spending almost as much time at home as they were at the height of the stay-home peak around April 7, according to a Washington Post analysis of data provided by SafeGraph, a company that aggregates cellphone location information.

Elsewhere, particularly in pockets of the Upper Midwest and the South, people are spending less time at home now than they did before the arrival of widespread restrictions (and, for many, before the arrival of spring weather). These also tend to be areas where officials were early to roll back stay-home restrictions.

[Which states are reopening after America's shutdown]

People in most areas fall somewhere in between the extremes, going out more than they did in early April but not nearly as much as they did before the novel coronavirus emerged.

To determine when people are home, SafeGraph obtains GPS data through regular pings from smartphones that are running one or more apps from an undisclosed list. The company defines “home” as a common location from which a phone pings between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.

And by detecting pings that come from phones that are within the footprints of buildings, the company can estimate foot traffic in a place of business or worship.

The data is not perfect, but it is a good indicator of where people are going.

Burgers are back, fine dining is not

Select a state

At the height of the lockdown, all types of restaurants lost customers as people hunkered down in their homes with stashes of fresh groceries. But fast-food joints took less of a sales hit than full-service restaurants, according to NPD Group, and their visitation appears to be rebounding faster.

In many states, especially in the South and Midwest, traffic at fast-food restaurants is now higher than it was before the restrictions, and the U.S. average has crept close to March 1 levels.

That not the case for full-service, sit-down restaurants.

Customers clearly are warier of sitting in a room with strangers than waiting in drive-through lines. Seventy-eight percent of respondents in a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll published May 5 said they would be uncomfortable eating in a sit-down restaurant.

In addition, so many people are out of work — more than 40 million unemployment claims were filed in the past 10 weeks — that fine dining is likely not in the budget for people who previously may have been willing to splurge. Full-service eateries have been hit especially hard because they tend to operate at lower profit margins than fast-food franchises, and most states are restricting their capacity to maintain social distancing.

But sit-down restaurants in states that allowed them to reopen got a Mother’s Day bump, and full-service chains such as Applebee’s and Olive Garden report that they are beginning to make up lost ground, according to NPD’s data.

You may notice that one non-state, the District of Columbia, stands alone on these charts. One reason is that the city has only begun to reopen today. Another is that it is completely urban, unlike the 50 states, which are all a mix of cities and non-cities. If New York City or San Francisco were measured separately, their data probably would look about the same.

In addition to restaurants, other industries are looking up — and a few are not.

Barber shops are back, movies stay shuttered

If you’re peering at this story through overgrown bangs, you won’t be surprised customers in many states surged to barber shops and hair salons as soon as they reopened.

Unfortunately, data for hair establishments is uniquely muddied by salons tucked into locations such as private homes, apartment buildings, grocery stores, senior centers and hospitals. Customer cellphone pings in those sites can be impossible to distinguish from people who are in the building for other reasons. But while individual state data can be sketchy, the overall trend is clearly upward, and we removed a few major outliers when possible.

Foot traffic for many of these categories varies quite a bit among states, in part because of staggered dates of reopening.

Bar traffic, for instance, varies wildly, with Montana and Alabama showing large recent spikes. That’s because SafeGraph’s data contains a relatively small sampling of bars, but also because the definition of a bar is somewhat loose. For instance, the spike in Alabama is heavily skewed by one giant beach bar/restaurant/entertainment complex that hosted, among other events, a May 22 high school graduation.

Grocery stores

Grocery-store traffic peaked right before widespread shutdowns and then dipped when most Americans were staying home. Since then, it has settled into a traffic pattern that is as busy — and often busier — than in early March. (A similar trend is playing out at general merchandise retailers such as Walmart and dollar stores, many of which also sell groceries.)

Supermarkets were always counted as essential businesses, so as the pandemic unfolded, management at many stores scrambled to come up with sanitizing and social distancing measures to try to protect customers and employees, who suddenly became front-line workers.

[CDC guidelines, released at last, offer low-key guide to reopening]

At least 100 grocery workers nationwide have died of complications from the virus since late March, and at least 5,500 others have tested positive, according to a Post review of data from the nation’s largest grocery workers union, other workers’ rights coalitions and media reports.

Religious organizations

Flocks have not flocked back to churches and other religious organizations in most of the country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wandering without shepherds.

Pastors, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders have been creative. Many streamed sermons and prayers online during the lockdown, and some are resuming services in person but outdoors, where the coronavirus is thought to be less likely to spread.

Some have even resurrected a quirky remnant of the 1950s and 1960s: drive-in church.

Gyms and sports fields

When it comes to gyms and fitness centers, states are clearly split. Many have not allowed them to reopen at all; others, such as Oklahoma and Georgia, allowed them to open weeks ago.

[What to consider before returning to the gym]

Experts in virus transmission are extremely leery of indoor gyms, where people pant and grunt for extended periods of time close to one another, sometimes in rooms with questionable ventilation and sanitization. A growing number of studies indicate that the coronavirus may be spread through expelled droplets that hang in the air for minutes.

U.S. residents seem less wary of outdoor recreation. Spikes in both Oklahoma, where indoor gyms are open, and Rhode Island, where they are closed, are skewed by visits to a few large, outdoor sports parks with grassy fields and walking trails. Kids’ baseball leagues and tournaments have resumed in some states, including Oklahoma. Some studios have moved classes outside so customers can exercise in fresh air.

Movie theater chains

Even in states that have allowed theaters to reopen, most owners have kept their projectors dark. That includes AMC Theatres, the country’s largest chain.

Image: A closed AMC Theater in Burbank, California on May 12, 2020.(Valerie Macon/AFP)

Hollywood studios have held back new releases that had been planned for spring and early summer, so theaters would have little to screen even if they did open. The first major studio to test the waters is expected to be Warner Bros., which plans to release Christopher Nolan’s new thriller, “Tenet,” on July 17. The next week, Disney plans to debut its live-action version of “Mulan."

[The fate of the summer movie season rests on one Christopher Nolan film]

A huge majority of respondents in The Post’s early May poll — 82 percent — said they opposed the reopening of movie theaters more than any other category of business (with gyms not far behind). Another mid-May survey found that even if the cost was the same, only 13 percent of respondents would prefer to watch a first-run movie in a theater as opposed to their living rooms.

With most indoor theaters closed, however, some of the country’s roughly 300 drive-in theaters are stealing the show. The retro but social-distance-friendly activity is experiencing such a resurgence that at least one indoor theater, in Utah, has temporarily converted its parking lot to a drive-in.

The takeaway? Americans seem to be eager — or at least willing — to venture out of their homes a bit more. But when it comes to indoor spaces with groups of strangers, most of us are still staying away.

[With many indoor movie theaters still closed, drive-ins try to show the way]

About this story

Data for this story was provided by SafeGraph, a company that aggregates location data from tens of millions of devices and compares it with building footprints. The Post analyzed its social distancing metrics data set to estimate the share of time spent at home for each county.

The raw numbers fluctuate from day to day and county to county, and some counties have far fewer devices than others. To account for these challenges, we adjusted the device counts based on population and performed a multilevel regression using a random effects model on the county, state and national levels. Because people tend to leave their homes far more on weekdays than weekends, we chose to calculate a seven-day rolling average, which results in each “day” of data including the average from five weekdays and two weekend days.

Similarly The Post analyzed SafeGraph’s weekly patterns data set to estimate how foot traffic has changed across industries, with the help of Nick Huntington-Klein, an assistant professor of economics at California State University at Fullerton.

Ling Jiang, Lenny Bronner, Brittany Renee Mayes and Reuben Fischer-Baum contributed to this report.

Headshot of Bonnie Berkowitz
Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the Graphics department at The Washington Post who often focuses on Health & Science topics.FollowFollow
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Kevin Schaul is a senior graphics editor for The Washington Post. He covers national politics and public policy using data and visuals.FollowFollow