Americans were warned that the nation’s explosive rise in coronavirus cases this fall made traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday unsafe. But they traveled anyway, and new data suggests they might not have practiced social distancing while doing so.
According to an NBC News analysis of cellphone location data provided by the analytics and marketing company Cuebiq, Americans in more than 1,900 counties saw increased rates of closeness during Thanksgiving travel, compared to the previous week.
Cuebiq has analyzed detailed location data from more than 15 million mobile devices in the contiguous U.S. since March to determine how often people lingered within 50 feet of someone else for at least five minutes while outside of their homes.
From Nov. 22 to Nov. 28, each day saw a rise in the number of counties where people increased their closeness level compared to the week earlier.
In June, an NBC News analysis of Cuebiq’s data found that Americans had begun clustering more often at the start of the summer after two months of strict distancing. The latest figures suggest that while clustering is still far below pre-pandemic levels, many Americans disregarded the warnings at the same time the pandemic is raging across the country. On Wednesday, the U.S. logged 14 million Covid-19 cases, including the highest number of daily deaths, new infections and hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic.
On Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, which the Transportation Security Administration said at the time was the busiest air travel day since March, Cuebiq’s data found 1,990 counties where closeness levels were higher than the previous week, including some very populous areas.
- In New York City, which was ravaged by the coronavirus in the spring, closeness levels rose 3 to 5 percentage points in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
- Closeness levels increased by 5 points in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and by 6 points in the Los Angeles suburb of Riverside County.
- In Hennepin County, Minnesota, home to the city of Minneapolis, closeness levels rose by 14 percent.
- Closeness levels jumped by more than 20 points in Charlottesville, Virginia and in Fulton County, Georgia, where Atlanta is.
There are limits to the data. An increase in the rate of closeness does not automatically correspond to an increase in virus transmission. And 50 feet (the distance Cuebiq uses as a baseline) is far beyond the 6-foot minimum distancing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the overarching pattern shows how difficult it was for Americans to maintain social distancing while traveling.
The United States is in the midst of its largest surge in new Covid-19 cases, with the country adding more than 100,000 new cases daily for the past four weeks. The CDC says that social distancing is the best way to reduce the spread of the virus, and concern about the exponential spread led the agency to urge Americans to stay home for the holiday season.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned on Sunday that holiday travel could worsen the virus’s spread. On NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” Fauci said that officials this month expect to see "a surge superimposed on the surge we are already in."
Eric Ascher, a family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said even with the dire warnings, the public appears to be planning to travel in greater numbers since the pandemic began.
“I've got a lot more people coming into the office requesting tests because they've got travel plans and family plans,” Ascher said.
That increase is worrisome, Ascher said, because a single negative test does not mean an individual is free from or immune to the virus. In fact, people in the earliest stages of infection might still test negative.
“This is not the time to lapse your social distancing,” Ascher warned. “Now, too many people are becoming a little bit comfortable expanding their social circles. This is not the time to feel that comfort.”
Cuebiq collects location data from a panel of about 15 million devices through mobile apps. Cuebiq collects location data only from opted-in devices whose users have agreed to share their anonymous location data with Cuebiq in apps such as GasBuddy & MyRadar. Cuebiq analyzes anonymous and aggregated data at the county level to determine a device's home area, where a particular device spends a significant amount of time, particularly in the evening. Its assessment of whether two devices come close to each other is based on checking the location data to see whether a device is within 50 feet of any other device within five minutes.
CORRECTION (Dec. 7, 9 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the Minnesota county where the city of St. Paul is located. It is in Ramsey County, not Hennepin County.