Cellphone Data Suggests Increased Travel, Stay-at-Home Order Fatigue

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A transportation expert at the University of Maryland tracked cellphone travel during coronavirus pandemic and saw an increase in interstate travel after President Donald Trump spoke in mid-April about reopening some states.

The anonymously collected data changed after April 14, when Trump spoke about reopening states, said Lei Zhang, director of the Maryland Transportation Institute at the University of Maryland.

“Since April 14, we saw the first-ever drop in all measures and metrics we use to measure social distancing behavior,” Zhang said.

A map from the study shows most people across the country stayed at or close to home on April 12. But as the week progressed, people traveled 25, 30 and more than 35 miles from home.

“These are not trips going back to work. These are trips for non-work purposes,” Zhang said.

The data showed lots of travel in and out of Maryland, specifically in Prince George's County, the county with the most COVID-19 cases in the state.

“From our data, PG County is actually the county in Maryland that received the most external trips from out of the state and the most of what we call imported cases,” he said.

Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said she had not been briefed on the study but she hypothesized county travel is high because 70% of residents work outside the county.

“When you say, ‘go out of state,’ that's not really hard to do because Virginia is right next door, we have D.C. right next door. We have a huge population of essential workers,” Alsobrooks said.

Zhang said he hopes the ongoing study can influence policy decisions nationally.

“We think this information has a lot of value. It's important for decision makers and the general public to see,” he said.

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