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Scary new estimates show what will happen if we stop social distancing in May

Published Apr 23rd, 2020 3:55PM EDT
Coronavirus USA
Image: Charlie Riedel/AP/Shutterstock

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  • As state and local public officials and health experts, along with the Trump administration at the federal level, work through the details of how they’ll go about reopening the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a new model shows what the effect will be of relaxing social distancing guidelines around the country starting in May.
  • From the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, this tool shows what will happen at the county level around the country if social distancing guidelines are relaxed 50% starting May 15 (hint: it’s not good).
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One of the hardest decisions to make in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak for states and cities around the country was the decision to effectively put themselves into an economic coma for an indefinite period of time — forcing people to mostly stay at home, except for trips to essential businesses like banks and grocery stores or to pick up food-to-go. With a snap of the fingers, in the form of orders from mayors and governors, ordinary life ground to a halt around the country, in a way that most Americans probably never could have conceived of being a possibility, let alone actually coming to pass.

But after several weeks of this, and more than a month of closures and lockdowns in many parts of the country, we’re now at a new and perhaps even more dangerous phase of the country’s response to the coronavirus. We’re starting to see the states and cities that want to be at the vanguard of opening back up again, amid protests that this whole thing is taking too long and warnings from public health experts that we’re not actually out of the woods yet and that reopening now is too dangerous. Along those lines, there’s a web tool built by the team at the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia which makes the math as plain as it can be for you — you can check here to get an estimate of what will happen in your area if leaders start relaxing social distancing guidelines in May, as has been proposed in a growing number of places around the US.

That link brings up a tool, “COVID-Lab: Mapping COVID-19 in Your Community.” You’ll see a map of the US that you can filter by state, and then filter down to the county level.

Let’s use Chicago’s Cook County as an example of what the data can reveal here. Here’s what you see for the county that encompasses Chicago, which has seen more than 14,000 cases of the coronavirus as of the time of this writing (and more than 35,000 in the state of Illinois):

What the researchers who built this tool used for their modeling is an arbitrary date of May 15 as a starting point to begin relaxing social distancing guidelines. On that date — again, for modeling purposes — they imagine what might happen if activity in the area is allowed to go 50% back to normal. “The instantaneous reproduction number (R) is estimated using the daily incidence of new cases, while including effects of social distancing, population density, and combined temperature and humidity lagged over the prior 14 days,” is how the site explains its methodology. “Each county’s effects are standardized by population demographics.”

What you see in the chart above for Cook County is, no surprise, a dramatic uptick in new cases, which starts to be most visible in June. If you kept things as they are now in Cook County, however, you can see that the curve would be flattened to essentially a straight line, with no new cases as we get close to August.

Of course, maintaining the status quo for another three months is a nonstarter, since businesses can’t stay locked up for that amount of time, not earning money, and hope to reopen and go right back to normal at the end of that period. This tool shows why the recommendation is that states and cities ease their way back toward a state of normalcy, keeping an eye on its impact on case numbers — not turning the dial all the way up at once, nor even relaxing things 50% at once, as this model is built around.

You can play with this tool to get a look at any state and county in the US. Here’s another example, showing Los Angeles County (and, again, using May 15 with a 50% relaxation of social distancing guidelines as a starting point).

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.