Public health experts have called the findings worrisome because the increased travel started even as most of the country remains under stay-at-home orders and the deadly virus is far from contained.
Lei Zhang, the lead researcher on the University of Maryland project, said the data shows a “premature loosening of social distancing behavior.” The research is being used by government officials and epidemiologists trying to determine when economies can begin to reopen safely.
“It’s certainly continuing, and it got worse,” Zhang said of the quarantine fatigue trend.
On April 24, 29 percent of Americans stayed home — a 2 percentage-point drop from the previous Friday and a 4 percentage-point drop from two weeks earlier. It marked a 6 percentage-point drop from the national high of 35 percent on April 6, about three weeks after stay-at-home orders began taking effect in mid-March.
Americans continued to travel about the same amount for work on April 24. But the average number of non-work trips — by plane, car, transit, bicycle and on foot — made daily per person increased 8 percent over that two-week period.
The findings illustrate what public health experts say has been a concern about Americans growing intolerably bored, lonely and restless as the weeks of being ordered or asked to stay home wear on.
Zhang, director of the Maryland Transportation Institute, said he was particularly struck by how much — and how quickly — travel resumed when businesses began to reopen.
On April 16, President Trump announced federal guidelines for states to follow when reopening their economies. Since then, governors in at least 15 states have begun to ease economic shutdowns or announce they will allow shelter-in-place orders to expire after this month. Most are requiring social distancing and other conditions in businesses.
On Friday, when Georgia’s hair salons, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and gyms began reopening under certain conditions, the percentage of state residents who stayed home dropped to 25 percent, from 32 percent the day before. The distance traveled daily jumped overnight from 25.6 miles per person to 30.3, while the average number of non-work trips made per person increased by 24 percent Friday.
Officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia say they have not seen a downward trend in new cases or hospitalization rates that would allow them to ease the shutdown, although the rates of increase have slowed. Leaders in the jurisdictions have said they will coordinate their reopening response, and they continue to urge residents to stay home and practice social distancing.
Zhang said he also was struck by the apparent impact of the highly publicized April 15 protest against stay-at-home orders in Michigan, which drew Trump’s support. The following week, the percentage of people who stayed home in the state compared with two weeks earlier dropped 6 percentage points, tying with its neighbor Ohio and with Louisiana for the biggest decline. Another Michigan neighbor, Indiana, had the next-largest drop, at 5 percentage points.
Zhang said he theorizes that the message of the Michigan protesters demanding to be allowed to return to work spread.
“I think people are on the verge, so anything can cause them to say, ‘Okay, that’s enough, I can’t do this anymore,’ ” he said.
The researchers define “staying home” as a cellphone that made no trips of a mile or more that day. The data, which is aggregated and anonymous, is collected from more than 100 million cellphones monthly, Zhang said.