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Austin metro area flunks new social distancing report card

Austin metro area flunks new social distancing report card

Social distancing
Austinites are apparently getting too close, according to a new report.  Photo by Getty Images

The Austin metro area earns a really unhealthy grade for social distancing, a data-gathering company says.

A widely used social distancing scoreboard from Unacast, a provider of location data and analytics, shows all five counties in the Austin metro area — Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell, and Hays — got F's for social distancing as of May 20. 

Relying on a huge storehouse of cellphone data, the Unacast scoreboard measures social distancing activity on a daily basis in every state and county compared with activity before the coronavirus outbreak. The scorecard assigns a letter grade of A through F based on current social distancing behavior.

Each grade takes into account three factors:

  • Percentage change in average distance traveled compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Percentage change in visits to nonessential places compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Decrease in person-to-person encounters compared with the national pre-coronavirus average

So, how did Travis County, for instance, fare in those three categories? On May 20, it received a D for reduction in average mobility (reduced by 25-40 percent). But in the other two categories, Travis gets an F. Why? Because it had less than a 55 percent reduction in nonessential visits and less than a 40 percent decrease in “encounters density” compared with the national average.

The scoreboard indicates Travis County’s grades have bounced around. On April 4, for example, the county received an A in the nonessential visit category for reducing those visits by at least 70 percent.

In Texas, the Austin area isn’t alone in its apparent failure, at least recently, to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

On May 20, not a single county in the Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio metro areas earned higher than a D on the Unacast report card.

All 13 counties in Dallas-Fort Worth received F's, according to the scoreboard. And only one county in the greater Houston area earned above an F. The same is true in the San Antonio area, where Bandera County earned the highest grade (D) of any county in the state’s four major metros. The others wound up with grades of D- or F.

But, as with Travis County, other metro areas’ scores in individual categories have fluctuated over time. Here are a few examples:

  • On April 4, Dallas and Harris counties earned an A for at least a 70 percent reduction in nonessential visits.
  • On April 11, Tarrant and Bexar counties received a B for a 55 to 70 percent drop in average mobility.

The scores for the state’s major metros appear to reflect the recent loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across Texas. But health experts still recommend sticking with social distancing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, Unacast points out that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite social distancing as the “most effective way” to combat coronavirus infections.

Unacast says it launched the social distancing scoreboard in March to enable organizations to measure and grasp the efficiency of local social distancing efforts.

“Data can be one of society’s most powerful weapons in this public health war,” Thomas Walle, co-founder and CEO of Unacast, says in an April 16 release.