Compared to two months earlier, an additional 3.5 million Ohioans hunkered down in April at the height of Gov. Mike DeWine’s 40-day stay-at-home order.
After a week of slowly reopening the state economy, 80% of these people have left their properties, according to an Akron Beacon Journal and USA TODAY analysis of cellphone data compiled by SafeGraph, a third-party analytics firm.
The non-identifiable cellphone data for 16 million Americans show patterns in where people live and how often they left their homes in February, March, April and May — before, during and after March 23 stay-at-home order that was relaxed on May 2. The county-level analysis shows compliance varied by income, education level, population density, local reporting and number of COVID-19 cases or deaths, and politics.
In February, the data suggest an average of 1.5 million Ohioans stayed home. That figure peaked at 5 million in April before falling to 2.2 million by May 9 — a week after Ohio’s state-at-home order ended.
In the 10 counties with the lowest compliance rates, nearly 72% of voters supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, versus 46% in the 10 counties with the highest compliance.
For the most part, densely populated metropolitan areas took longer to reach peak compliance but, in the end, dutifully obeyed the public health order.
The 20 counties with the highest compliance from February to April have 367 people living in the average square mile. In the 20 counties with the lowest compliance rates, the average population density is 54 people per square mile.
Communities with better paying jobs and more college degrees adhered more quickly to the order.
Sociologists note that having a college degree does not make one smarter. Access to more local news can be as informing as alarming. And people may have left their properties for leisure or relaxation, not to casually meet others.
All 88 Ohio counties saw more people stay put in April compared to February. But lower-income rural counties with fewer high school diplomas, including some communities now seeing the highest increase in newly reported cases, were the least likely to follow the order.
Northeast Ohio is well-represented as a region with high percentages of people staying home.
Local counties that led the compliance include Geauga (No. 3 statewide), Medina (5), Lake (6), Summit (13), Lorain (14), Cuyahoga (15), Mahoning (17), Portage (22) and Stark (24).
Cuyahoga was widely reported as the epicenter for early community spread in Ohio. Mahoning continues to lead in deaths per capita.
The No. 1 county statewide for percentage of residents staying home in April (51%) was Delaware in central Ohio. Morgan County in southeastern Ohio had the lowest compliance, with 36% of residents staying home.
Who, where, why
Adherence to the shelter-in-place order tracks standard political and cultural divisions, from trust in government, health experts and the press to balancing individualism with the collective effort to keep others safe. Social scientists and emergency management experts who try to understand public responses to crises offer a multitude of explanations for heeding or ignoring the order.
Some people may feel less vulnerable to the illness and, therefore, less likely to protect themselves against it, which in turn protects others.
Communities with jobs that adapt easily to telework or have incomes that support home delivery of groceries and meals may be more comfortable staying put. Ohio counties with the greatest compliance had an average median household income 38% higher than counties that took the stay-at-home order as more of a suggestion.
An extra $600 in federal stimulus gets unemployment checks close to the median income in counties with the lowest compliance. But shelves can’t be stocked nor crops planted in a Zoom meeting, as some experts suggest it’s not just the size of paycheck but the types of jobs that force people to travel daily.
“One of the biggest things I’ve certainly noticed is just what socioeconomic status can offer in terms of the convenience of being able to stay at home,” said John Updegraff, a Kent State social and health psychologist. “It’s not a luxury that many can afford.”
University of Akron sociologist Juan Xi observes a “false empowerment” as people rebuff state orders to regain a “sense of control.”
When crisis hits and orders call for sacrifice of normal daily routines, “people may take different coping strategies to feel empowered and protect their mental health,” Xi said. “One such strategy is defiance.”
Xi also speculates that people self-select information by filtering on social media or tuning to national news to justify their defiance, creating a reinforcing cycle of behavior and information.
There’s also a desire for things to go back to the way they were.
“During uncertainty and crisis, researchers have found many people tend to cling to the past and try to hold onto or reinstate a sense of normalcy as much as possible,” Xi said. “This can be interpreted as a kind of avoidance of facing uncertain changes imposed onto life by powerful external forces.”
With recent reports of U.S. sailors catching the novel coronavirus for a second time, the disease appears stubborn and enduring, which can weigh on people who see no end in sight.
“With COVID-19, we’ve seen that release of the compliance is partly due to fatigue,” said Julie Swann, a professor who studies infectious disease spread and heads the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State. In 2009, Swann was a scientific adviser to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s response to the H1N1 outbreak.
While H1N1 fizzled out as a vaccine became available, Swann said there’s a strong possibility of “social re-distancing” should a second wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths hit this summer or fall.
“I think a public health expert would tell you that the compliance would be less the second time an alarm is raised,” she said.
Among all the possible explanations, one encompasses the others: “All norms are local,” Updegraff said, repeating a fundamental adage of sociology.
Whether it’s wearing masks in public, maintaining social distance or avoiding non-essential trips, it’s all “tied to the perception of what other people in your community are doing. People are more likely to adhere to behaviors if they think people around them support it,” Updegraff said.
All these factors can work together to become “self-reinforcing,” Updegraff said. One example is prevalence and awareness, which create a local perception that the disease is a more imminent threat.
Counties with some of the strongest adherence to the stay-at-home order fall in more vibrant media markets with multiple television, radio and print news options, each bombarding the public with hourly pandemic updates. Counties with the lowest compliance exist in local news deserts.
Nationally, the hardest-hit counties around New York City went hardest into lockdown, according to a national report of the cellphone research. Sparsely populated regions with lower confirmed case and death counts continued to move around.
The same was true across Ohio.
Reach Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.