The NT

MUNCIE, Indiana – Hoosiers took the first reports of the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, adopting physical distancing days before government officials began issuing stay-at-home guidelines, says a Ball State University study.

“The COVID-19 Pandemic in Indiana: Documenting Its Spread and the Social Distancing Behavior of Hoosiers,” also found that physical distancing increased substantially following the first confirmed COVID-19 death in Indiana.

Using locational data from individual cellphone users provided by the SafeGraph Corporation, the Ball State research team investigated physical distancing by examining whether Indiana’s stay-at-home order and other events affected two aspects of physical distancing: the percentage of people who leave their homes on a given day and the number of visits to common points of interest, including gas stations, supercenters, and grocery stores.

While physical distancing has been a large part of the overall strategy to reduce the person-to person transmission of COVID-19, little is known about its effectiveness in the short run, said Erik Nesson, an economics professor and member of the Miller College of Business’ Health Research Group.

“We believe that most people heard the news coming from around the country and took this to be serious almost immediately,” Nesson said. “Then the first death in Indiana was reported on March 4 by the media, and it shocked most people. Our study found the percentage of people leaving home dropped dramatically following the first confirmed COVID-19 death in Indiana. It seems that this event induced caution in a substantial number of Hoosiers.

“Our findings suggest that the initial government actions on stay-at-home orders seem less important on influencing people’s behavior, and thus the costs nor the benefits seem that high. This may be quite different now if people are no longer keen on staying home.”

The study sample consists of 92 counties over the period of 59 days, from March 1 to April 29, when the disease was expanding in the state.

The study found visits to restaurants, drinking establishments, and campgrounds decreased in early March, before Indiana’s stay-at-home order was issued three weeks later on March 23. Following the declaration of a national emergency on March 13, visits to drinking places and camps decreased more than visits to restaurants. However, researchers noted that they cannot determine whether an individual went inside a venue or ordered takeout.

While visits to restaurants were quicker to recover than visits to other venues, the visits to all three kinds of venues remained at a lower and relatively stable level compared with before March 13.

The study also found that visits to restaurants, drinking establishments, and campgrounds have been steadily increasing since Indiana entered Stage 2 of the reopening plan on May 4 and started lifting restrictions. Visits to recreational vehicle (RV) and recreational camps exhibit a remarkable increase on May 22, the date that Stage 3 of the reopening plan went into effect and allowing campgrounds to open.

It appears that activity at campgrounds has been one of the quickest to surpass baseline visitation, the researchers discovered.

Other findings include:

People living in urban counties were less likely to leave home over nearly the entire two-month time span as compared to their rural counterparts, though the difference is never more than about 5 percentage points.

Both urban and rural counties in Indiana follow the same pattern where the percentage leaving home dropped dramatically following the first confirmed COVID-19 death in the state.

One of the biggest jumps in shopping behavior occurred on March 13, the date that President Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency. More devices were located at supercenters and grocery stores on March 13 than any other day in the two months of data presented. This suggests that people were flocking to supercenters and grocery stores to stockpile supplies as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading.

Like most of the nation, Nesson believes, Indiana may be entering a phase where people are getting tired of staying at home, even though the nation never fully bent the epidemic curve, and this may be leading to large growth in cases in states such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona.

“Stay-at-home orders may be more effective at changing people’s behavior when people are not physical distancing on their own,” he said.

The paper was conducted by the Miller College of Business Health Research Group: Philip DeCicca, Maoyong Fan, Minh Nguyen, Paul Niekamp, and Nesson—all faculty members of the Department of Economics.

The research paper has not been submitted to a peer reviewed journal. However, due to the immediacy of the pandemic, the Miller College of Business is prioritizing the production of relevant, impactful research that informs various disciplines and students, as well as business and policy makers.

“It is our hope that this brief report adds to the understanding of what happened, how Hoosiers responded so that more effective government policies might be devised to deal with the current pandemic situation and more COVID-19 cases as the economy reopens,” Nesson said.