Other metropolitan areas saw similar trends. Limiting maximum occupancy was also more effective at reducing infections and mitigating economic fallout than a blanket limitation on visits to each POI.
The section of this study that likely resulted in misguided headlines pertains to the modeling of reopening various POI. For this analysis, researchers modeled a full reopening of each category of POI based on March mobility levels while leaving the others closed.
They found that “on average across metro areas, full-service restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes, religious organizations, and limited-service restaurants produced the largest predicted increases in infections when reopened.” Full-service restaurants were especially risky, with predicted 596,000 cases by the end of May if reopened at full capacity.
Models are only as good as the assumptions on which they are based. In this case, the assumption is resuming at full maximum occupancy to pre-COVID-19 levels. But no business—including fitness centers—has opened at full capacity or is even advocating for opening at full capacity.
This analysis tells us much of what we already know: if we reopen to pre-pandemic levels of capacity, which often do not facilitate adequate social distancing, then it is likely cases of COVID-19 will spike.
It is also unclear from this study the extent to which researchers factored mask-wearing, social distancing, ventilation, and hygiene practices into the assumptions. For example, it is logistically possible for a fitness center patron to wear a mask 100% of the time they are there—some states like Maryland require it—but this is not possible in a full-service restaurant, bar, or coffee shop.
Another key finding in this study and one the authors assert holds up even in the face of study limitations, is that people in lower-income CBG tend to have higher transmission rates because they are not able to limit mobility—for example, by working from home—and visit more dense POI. The authors recommend a number of policy measures, including occupancy limits, emergency food distribution, and affordable, accessible testing to address socio-economic inequities in COVID-19 infections.
These policies are important short-term measures to control COVID-19 spread. However, long-term approaches to address and prevent comorbidities like obesity and diabetes—such as regular physical activity—should not be forgotten either.