During COVID-19, wealthier people now less mobile than poorer people

Researchers found changes in mobility patterns among Americans of different income levels during COVID-19:

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Writing in the journal PNAS, researchers from several California universities describe how they used anonymized cell phone location data and census info to show a dramatic reversal in how mobile Americans have been this year. Before Covid-19 struck, rich Americans moved about more than poor Americans—they can always afford to travel. But between January and April, that flipped. Rich folk are now far more likely to stay completely at home than poor folk: The study found that 25 percent more high earners stayed completely at home during the pandemic, compared to the number of them who had stayed home before. That increase was only 10 percent among low earners. And that has major implications for how we as a nation can fight the pandemic.

“In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a clear mobility response across the board,” says University of California, Davis environmental economist Joakim Weill, lead author on the paper. “In the US, everyone started to stay at home more. But we also found that there is a clear differential between wealthier communities and poor communities, where individuals in wealthier neighborhoods tended to stay at home much more than people in poorer neighborhoods.”…

Close to half of the wealthiest Americans stayed completely at home on weekdays in April, compared to less than 40 percent of low-earners. The poor traveled farther distances on average: In the same month, people who live in lower-income areas traveled between 5 and 6 kilometers, while the rich traveled closer to 4. The rich nearly halved their visits to recreational and retail areas in April, while the poor cut their visits by only a quarter—perhaps because their jobs required them to return to work there.

To be clear, the researchers can’t definitively say why the data shows this dramatic discrepancy, but they can begin to speculate. For one, essential workers often earn lower incomes, like clerks at grocery stores and pharmacies. Indeed, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that among Americans 25 and older with less than a high school diploma, just 5 percent teleworked in June. On the other hand, 54 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree were able to work remotely.

Social class is connected to mobility, health, and a whole lot of factors in social life. The anonymized cell phone data also seems to align with other patterns: those who can leaving certain big cities as well as differences in COVID-19 cases across communities and racial and ethnic groups.

As the article goes on to note, the fact that anyone can contract COVID-19 is not the same as saying everyone has the same likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Those with resources have more options in how to respond to crises plus more options when it comes to treatment. These differences are generally present regarding health but a large pandemic reveals some of the underlying patterns that deserve attention.

Building Faith, COVID-19, and staying away from religious buildings

When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:

One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.

All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.

Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.

The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within

Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.

Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.

 

Community disparities in COVID-19 cases mean districts and schools will need to respond differently

Given disparities in who is more at risk for COVID-19 (higher proportions of Blacks and Latinos, differences across suburban communities), school districts and possibly even schools within districts might need different plans to address the situation. In the Chicago suburbs, many districts have already announced plans for the start of school.

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Yet, what the plans are and in which communities is interesting to observe. Approaches can vary quite a bit with some opting for all remote learning to start, others going with a hybrid model (alternating attendance), and a few considering more in-person instruction. Wealthier communities that go for remote options may have more flexibility: parents and families can provide for childcare or have adults who can work from home and technology is plentiful. Furthermore, some communities appear to have a lower risk of COVID-19 compared to other places where people work in different kinds of jobs and households are larger. And larger school districts that encompass pockets of residents from different social classes and racial and ethnic groups could have very different situations within their schools. To some degree, this is nothing new: outcomes can vary for students within schools and districts. At the same time, COVID-19 (and other crises) help expose inequalities already present and may exacerbate them further.

That said, it might difficult to develop one-size-fits-all options even at the district level, let alone among county education boards or state education boards, unless there is a lot of homogeneity. The residential segregation common in the United States which then affects who attends what schools as well as  COVID-19 cases means addressing learning and safety together could require flexibility across schools.

Background noise and less seismic activity caused by humans during COVID-19

Measuring seismic activity often requires locating instruments away from population centers. During COVID-19, the seismic activity caused by humans dropped a lot:

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Writing today in the journal Science, dozens of researchers from around the world show that the seismic activity from our civilization plummeted as lockdowns went into effect. This “anthropogenic seismic noise,” as seismologists call it, comes from all manner of human activities, whether that’s running factories, operating cars or trains, or even holding concerts. Seismometers pick up these activities as a kind of constant din, which actually peaks on weekdays, when more people are moving around, and falls on weekends when economies slow down. All this activity that seismometers detect mixes with the natural rumbles that scientists are really interested in, like earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

But boy, are they interested in the anthropogenic seismic noise now—or the lack thereof, as humans began to shelter in place. “We see it effectively moving around the globe as a seismic lockdown wave,” says Royal Holloway University of London seismologist Paula Koelemeijer, one of the paper’s coauthors. “So starting in China originally, then in different places in Italy, and then going through Europe. And whenever lockdowns happened in different countries, we see the effect that’s up to an 80 percent reduction in the amplitude of the seismic noise in some places.” The average was about 50 percent…

Normally, seismologists don’t bother monitoring urban environments for just this reason: There’s way too much noise muddying the signals of Earth’s natural processes. But for the past few years, citizen scientists have been collecting signals thanks to a clever little device called the Raspberry Shake, a Raspberry Pi computer outfitted with sensors to create an internet-connected seismometer. “Those instruments have been popping up more and more in people’s homes,” says Koelemeijer. “And so about 40 percent of our data stations that we looked at have been these citizen science instruments. It’s just people finding it funny, geeky, to have one of them. Like, I’m one of those people. I have one in my house.”…

But it was in a remote part of Germany where seismologists recorded perhaps the most surprising lockdown data. The Black Forest Observatory is not only isolated, and thus considered to be a reference low-noise laboratory, but its instruments are stowed over 150 meters below the surface, in bedrock. Yet they, too, picked up a small noise reduction at night during the lockdown. “Germany was a big surprise for us, because that station is very much a remote station, and seen as a very good seismic station for looking at natural signals,” says Koelemeijer. “So the fact that we saw it there was quite remarkable.”

Human activity influences all sorts of spheres that we do not often consider. Here, humans create a lot of noise and activity below the surface of the earth. There are occasionally complaints about noise pollution but most people put up with a certain amount of noise and vibrations in the places where they live.

This reminds of several different aspects of working with “background noise.” Working in radio, I often used sound effects for promotional material. The sound effect CDs we had contained a variety of background noise or din. For example, the city options largely contained traffic noise with vehicle rumbling and honking mixed together.

More recently, sports broadcasts have adjusted to teams playing in stadiums with no fans present in the stands. They often use recordings of fans where a sound technician has the ability to respond to play on the field (such as cheering for a good play for the home team or a negative response from fans). Without such background noise, the broadcast sounds very different: voices echo, the players can be heard, and a comforting or familiar element of the broadcast is lost.

All together, the background noise of our lives matters in everyday activity and in scientific measurement. If COVID-19 changes human movement and interactions, what we hear by ear and scientific instruments also changes.

Disproportionately more Illinois COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Chicago suburbs

The Daily Herald reports on COVID-19 cases in the Chicago suburbs as a whole:

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Since the outbreak began, there have been 83,563 cases in the suburbs as of Thursday, 50% of the state’s total, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. There have been 3,750 deaths in the suburbs, representing almost 50.9% of all deaths in Illinois.

The data presented suggest the Chicago suburbs account for roughly half of cases and deaths in Illinois. But, how does this compare to the percent of Illinois residents living in the Chicago suburbs?

The subsequent numbers of COVID-19 cases by community suggest these are the counties in the Daily Herald analysis: suburban Cook County, DuPage County, Kane County, Will County, McHenry County, and Lake County. If you add up these populations (using the U.S. Census QuickFacts 2019 population estimates), the suburban population is roughly 5,610,000. With the total population of Illinois at 12,671,821, the residents of the Chicago suburbs account for a little over 44% of the state’s population.

Thus, the Chicago suburbs have slightly more of their share of COVID-19 cases and deaths within the state of Illinois. Is this expected or unexpected? If we hold to images of wealthier, whiter suburbs, perhaps this is surprising: can’t many suburbanites work from home and/or shelter in place in large homes? Or, is suburbia more complex?

The disparities across suburban communities are not just limited to DuPage County. Take two large municipalities in suburban Cook County: even though Schaumburg has 13,000 more residents than Des Plaines, it has 1,200 cases than Des Plaines. Or, in Kane County, St. Charles has 4,500 fewer residents than Carpentersville (population of just over 37,000) but has just a little more than half of the cases.

While much attention regarding COVID-19 has focused on cities – and for some good reasons – this data from the Chicago suburbs suggests it is a issue for many suburbs as well.

(It is unclear how this data might change if the analysis extended to more counties in the Chicago metropolitan region, which include additional counties in Illinois, northwest Indiana, and southeastern Wisconsin.)

Fewer plane flights, worse weather forecasts, collecting data

The consequences of COVID-19 continue: with fewer commercial airline flights, weather models have less data.

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During their time in the skies, commercial airplanes regularly log a variety of meteorological data, including air temperature, relative humidity, air pressure and wind direction — data that is used to populate weather prediction models…

With less spring meteorological data to work with, forecasting models have produced less accurate predictions, researchers said. Long-term term forecasts suffered the most from a lack of meteorological data, according to the latest analysis…

Forecast accuracy suffered the most across the United States, southeast China and Australia, as well as more remote regions like the Sahara Desert, Greenland and Antarctica.

Though Western Europe experienced an 80 to 90 percent drop in flight traffic during the height of the pandemic, weather forecasts in the region remained relatively accurate. Chen suspects the region’s densely-packed network of ground-based weather stations helped forecasters continue to populate models with sufficient amounts of meteorological data.

Models, whether for pandemics or weather, need good input. Better data up front helps researchers adjust models to fit past patterns and predict future outcomes. Absent of data, it can be hard to fit models, especially in complex systems like weather.

As noted above, there are other ways to obtain weather data. Airplanes offered a convenient way to collect data: thousands of regular flights could lead to a lot of data. In contrast, constructing ground stations would require more resources in the short-term.

Yet, any data collector needs to remain flexible. One source of data can disappear, leading to a new approach. Or, a new opportunity might arise and switching methods makes sense. Or, those studying and predicting weather could develop multiple good sources of data that could options or redundancy amid black swan events.

Few may recognize all of this is happening. Weather forecasts will continue. Behind the scenes, we might even get better weather models in the long run as researchers and meteorologists adjust.

Does new housing data support the claim that people are leaving cities?

Reuters tries to connect the dots between data on housing construction and claims that people are leaving cities:

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U.S. homebuilding increased in June by the most in nearly four years amid reports of rising demand for housing in suburbs and rural areas as companies allow employees to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic…

A survey on Thursday showed confidence among single-family homebuilders vaulting in July to levels that prevailed before the coronavirus crisis upended the economy in March.

Builders reported increased demand for single-family homes in lower density markets, including small metro areas, rural markets and large metro suburbs. The public health crisis has shifted office work from commercial business districts to homes, a trend that economists predict could become permanent…

Home building last month was boosted by a 17.2% jump in the construction of singe-family housing units, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, to a rate of 831,000 units. Groundbreaking activity increased in the Midwest, South and Northeast, but fell in the West.

It is widely assumed that large numbers of urban residents have left New York (and possibly) other places for suburbs and other parts of the country. If so, this could influence the housing industry. Yet, I would ask a few more questions.

First question to ask: is this activity due to people leaving cities or other factors? It would be helpful to consider other possible factors at play such as seasonal changes (more housing activity in warmer weather, more demand in warmer months) and the economy (ranging from confidence of different actors to mortgage rates to available capital to unemployment – all intertwined with COVID-19). Is the uptick in activity since roughly early March to today (when

Second question to ask: if there is evidence that things are happening simultaneously, is there more evidence to suggest they are causal patterns at play? If people are leaving cities, it does not necessarily mean they are looking for new homes. Perhaps they want to return to the city, perhaps they are living with others, perhaps they are willing to rent for a while and see what happens.

And out of my own curiosity, the reporting I have seen about people leaving cities during COVID-19 seems to primarily apply to wealthier residents. Does this mean the new construction of homes will tilt toward larger, more expensive homes? If so, this is a continuation of a bifurcated housing market where those with resources will have options while many with limited resources or opportunities will not.

There is a lot to consider here and we may not the patterns for a while yet. Even if the housing industry thinks that people are fleeing cities for good, this matters regardless of the actual data.

Poor Census response rate in neighborhoods with fleeing New Yorkers

Here is another consequence of city residents leaving for other places during COVID-19: absent New York residents are not filling out Census 2020 forms at a good rate.

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Only 46 percent of Upper East Side households have filled out their census forms, according to a June 25 report circulated by the Department of City Planning’s chief demographer, Joseph J. Salvo — well below the neighborhood’s final response rate in 2010, and short of the current citywide rate of almost 53 percent…

Even if New Yorkers have asked the Postal Service to forward mail to their second homes, census forms are addressed to the household, not the individual, which — unless New Yorkers pay for premium forwarding — prevents the post office from including them with the forwarded mail…

Officials hope that many of the coronavirus evacuees will return by the end of October, the new extended deadline for final responses to the census. But with Manhattan parents now enrolling children in schools outside the city, it is not clear that the evacuees will return to New York City in time…

The pandemic has prompted census outreach workers to adjust their tactics, especially in trying to reach undocumented immigrants and residents in illegal housing, who may be fearful of sharing information with the government. In the heavily immigrant neighborhoods of North Corona and East Elmhurst, outreach workers have approached New Yorkers while they wait in lines at food distribution sites, for example.

A lot of effort goes into conducting the decennial census and the data collected is helpful to many. Trying to boost response rates to surveys in a world awash in data collection is a difficult task without a global pandemic. But, I imagine this might lead to some interesting lessons about data collection. Researchers need to have some flexibility in all cases as circumstances can change and plans may go awry. This could be a helpful story about how a large organization adapted in a difficult situation and maybe even made future data collection more robust.

While the article mentions the potential consequences for New York City, there is another consequence of the movement of people: would these wealthy New Yorkers boost the Census numbers elsewhere, provided that they fill out the forms about residing in other locations? Granted, they would still have to fill out a Census form but others might do that for them (if they are living with others) or they might fill out a form once they are more settled in.

Do we know that 500,000 people have fled NYC since the start of COVID-19?

On the heels of much discussion of residents leaving New York City, San Francisco, and other major cities because of COVID-19, the Daily Mail suggests 500,000 people have left New York City:

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Parts of Manhattan, famously the ‘city that never sleeps’, have begun to resemble a ghost town since 500,000 mostly wealthy and middle-class residents fled when Covid-19 struck in March.

The number is also part of the headline.

But, how do we know this number is accurate? If there was ever a figure that required some serious triangulation, this could be it. Most of the news stories I have seen on people fleeing cities rely on real estate agents and movers who have close contact with people going from one place to another. Those articles rarely mention figures, settling for vaguer pronouncements about trends or patterns. Better data could come from sources like utility companies (presumably there would be a drop in the consumption of electricity and water), the post office (how many people have changed addresses), and more systematic analyses of real estate records.

A further point about the supposed figure: even if it is accurate, it does not reveal much about long-term trends. Again, the stories on this phenomenon have hinted that some of those people who left will never return while some do want to get back. We will not know until some time has gone by after the COVID-19 pandemic slows down or disappears. Particularly for those with resources, will they sell their New York property or will they sit on it for a while to give themselves options or in order to make sure they get a decent return on it? This may be a shocking figure now but it could turn out in a year or two to mean very little if many of those same people return to the city.

In other words, I would wait to see if this number is trustworthy and if so, what exactly it means in the future. As sociologist Joel Best cautions around numbers that seem shocking, it helps to ask good questions about where the data comes from, how accurate it is, and what it means.

Seeking insurance for black swan events

Lloyd’s of London is interested in black swan insurance that would help protect against losses from unusual events:

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Commercial insurance market Lloyd’s has said insurers worldwide will pay out more than $100 billion in coronavirus-related claims this year.

But many firms are frustrated that their business interruption policies do not cover the pandemic and some in Europe and the United States are in dispute with insurers.

The Black Swan cover could be used to ensure payments after catastrophes such as a cyber attack or solar storm destroying critical infrastructure, as well as for pandemics, Lloyd’s said in a report published on Wednesday.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines black swan events this way:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (xxii)

What phenomena fall into this category? According to Taleb:

Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. (xxii)

It seems like a conundrum: how exactly to provide insurance monies for events that are unknown and unpredictable? One of the important features of the insurance industry is being able to estimate risk and possibly payouts. A black swan event makes this very difficult if not impossible. At the same time, we know black swan events are possible – even if we do not know which ones might occur or what new phenomena might arise – so having money available to address the situation seems wise.

It would be interesting to see how this plays in the court of public opinion. When crisis hits, I would guess many people want governments and large corporations to be able to respond quickly and dispatch needed monies. Yet, having a large slush fund or unlimited monies to address potential situations could strike some as problematic.