Stanford University


The Efficiency of US Public Space Utilization During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Seth Benzell
Avinash Collis
Christos Nicolaides

July 22, 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic has called for and generated massive novel government regulations to increase social distancing for the purpose of reducing disease transmission. A number of studies have attempted to guide and measure the effectiveness of these policies, but there has been less focus on the overall efficiency of these policies. Efficient social distancing requires implementing stricter restrictions during periods of high viral prevalence and rationing social contact to disproportionately preserve gatherings that produce a good ratio of benefits to transmission risk. To evaluate whether US social distancing policy actually produced an efficient social distancing regime, we tracked consumer preferences for, visits to, and crowding in public locations of 26 different types. We show that the US’s rationing of public spaces, post-spring 2020, has failed to achieve efficiency along either dimension. In April 2020 the US did achieve notable decreases in visits to public spaces and focused these reductions in locations that offer poor benefit-to-risk trade-offs. However, this achievement was marred by an increase, from March to April, in crowding at remaining locations due to fewer locations remaining open. In December 2020, at the height of the pandemic so far, crowding in and total visits to locations were higher than in February, before the US pandemic, and these increases were concentrated in locations with the worst value-to-risk tradeoff.

Stanford University