Mobility data tracks Valley shelter in place order progress

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Recently published mobility data gathered and analyzed by Google offers a glimpse at how residents are accounting for their time during the pandemic across the U.S. including counties in Rio Grande Valley. 

Roadways are less congested and grocery stores are largely seeing smaller crowds – the effects of orders requiring people to stay home. Public officials and residents are curious about where those crowds are going. The data shows that answer varies by county. 

"I can tell just the traffic on the highway is a lot less," said Starr County Judge Eloy Vera. Google tracked information shared by users who turn on their location history setting, a feature off by default. The anonymized sets of data were then broken into six categories: retail stores and recreational places, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplace and residential. They created a baseline – a measure of what's normal activity in those categories. 

In Texas, 45-percent fewer people are going to retail and places of recreation. A higher decrease was observed in the Valley with Hidalgo County registering the largest drop of 63-percent. Cameron County experienced a 61-percent drop. Starr and Willacy counties trailed with a 54-percent and 51-percent, respectively.

Groceries and pharmacies, both essential businesses, continue to draw in customers, but there have been smaller crowds. Statewide, there are about 23-percent fewer people going in these stores. Hidalgo had the largest decrease measured by Google's data with a 43-percent reduction. It was followed closely by Cameron County with a 41-percent drop. Willacy County's decrease was at 36-percent and Starr County had the lowest registered difference of 31-percent. 

Attendance at parks was also evaluated. Across Texas, there was only about a quarter of a difference in lost crowds, 27-percent. In the Valley, that number was vastly exceeded. Hidalgo County saw nearly three-quarters of their visitors stop going with a decrease of 74-percent. The drop was lower in Cameron County with 70-percent, and Starr County with 57-percent. Not enough data was gathered in Willacy County for a substantial analysis.

Transit station data was only available in the most populous Valley counties. Nearly half of the people who normally use public transport stopped using it across the state or 47-percent less. Even more people stopped using these modes of transportation in Hidalgo and Cameron where they saw a decrease of 64-percent and 62-percent, respectively.

Two important components of shelter in place orders were also measured by the data. 

Non-essential employees are asked not to go to the workplace. In Texas, only about 36-percent adhered to the request. Only Hidalgo and Cameron counties exceeded the statewide average with a reduction in 43-percent and 37-percent, respectively. Willacy County only saw 34-percent less, but Starr County saw the least difference with only 29-percent fewer people showing up to work.

Vera believes the way businesses are set up in the county may affect the data. "We certainly will try to work on that," he said. "However, a lot of our businesses are locally-owned. And, they're mom-and-pop type like for example tire shops, stuff like that. So, they operate out of their homes. That's the reason it shows that they haven't stop going to work because they're right there at home."

It could be the reason why Starr also had the largest increase in the last category tracking how many people stay at home. While the state only saw 13-percent more people at their residence, Starr County had a 25-percent increase. Hidalgo County was also above the state's average with 18-percent, and Cameron County followed with 17-percent. Not enough data could be gathered for Willacy County. 

Vera says they hope to see an improvement in their numbers. "It's certainly very encouraging that people are staying home. We wish that the number was even a little higher," he said. So far, Starr is the only county that does not have any known community transmission COVID-19 cases. 

They hope Easter celebrations don't threaten to disturb the downward trend of those numbers. Starr County's judge said he hopes the recent closure of Falcon Lake Park from Thursday through Tuesday will deter crowds from gathering and the virus from spreading further. 



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