Are Mecklenburg residents staying home? Google location data reveals where people go

Are Mecklenburg residents staying home? Google location data reveals where people go
Tips on social distancing in public parks from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). (Source: (NRPA) WWW.NRPA.ORG)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Lauren Lindstrom/Charlotte Observer) - Many Mecklenburg County residents took far fewer trips to work, restaurants and grocery stores in late March as officials mandated certain businesses close under “stay-at-home” orders, according to a Google analysis of location data stored on mobile devices.

Google recently released a county-by-county look at North Carolinians’ March 29 movements to a variety of locations including grocery stores, retail stores, parks and public transportation. The report compares movements on March 29, a Sunday, to the median value on Sundays between Jan. 3 and Feb 6. The data comes from location history settings.

Data from Google Maps and other Google apps users in Mecklenburg County shows:

▪ A 53% decrease in movement to retail and recreation locations, which Google determined includes restaurants, shopping centers and movie theaters.

▪ A 23% decrease in trips to grocery stores and pharmacies.

▪ A 70% decrease in transit station movement, including bus and train stations.

▪ A 43% decrease in travel to work places.

Gov. Roy Cooper closed bars and restaurants to in-person dining March 17. Mecklenburg’s “stay-at-home” order began March 26, followed by a similar statewide order that began March 30.

Statewide, Google’s data shows visits to retail and recreational spots decreased 40% on March 29. The drop was more significant in Mecklenburg (53% decrease) and Wake County (51% decrease). Larger, urban counties were among the first to institute bans on mass gatherings and other restrictions.

People are spending more time in residential locations and parks in Mecklenburg, indicating many are heeding public officials’ recommendations to stay home except for select activities, including outdoor exercise.

Google data shows a 13% increase for residential locations on March 29 and a 1% increase at parks.

Movement patterns in Mecklenburg saw bigger swings — in both positive and negative directions — than North Carolina as a whole except in the parks category. Statewide, location data at parks was up 13% on March 29, according to the report.

North Carolina officials are looking at cell phone location data to inform decisions about whether to tighten stay-at-home orders and other social distancing recommendations, according to WRAL.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have begun to enforce violations of the mass gathering bans. Officers arrested eight people who refused to disburse while protesting in front of a Charlotte abortion clinic Saturday.

Public health officials have said social distancing, including working from home and avoiding crowded spaces, is key to slowing spreading the virus to avoid overwhelming the health care systems.

Google’s “mobility” reports come from “aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default. People who have Location History turned on can choose to turn it off at any time from their Google Account and can always delete Location History data directly from their timeline,” the company says.

The data is a sample, according to Google, and “may or may not represent the exact behavior of a wider population.”

This work was made possible in part by grant funding from Report for America/GroundTruth Project and the Foundation For The Carolinas.